It’s frankly difficult to make it through the opening credits of fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.” What are we to think when a man whose creative purpose has been glamour opens his film with luridly obese women dancing in slow motion, completely nude except for majorette hats and vapid, ingratiating smiles? It’s really hard not to be offended, and certainly perplexed.
Soon, we learn these disturbing, cruel images are “art” in that they are being shown in a Los Angeles art gallery, and therefore we can accept them. Is this what we must do with the whole of “Nocturnal Animals”? Are we expected to fill in the many blanks in this otherwise average thriller simply because Ford directed it?
A dual storyline begins with Susan (Amy Adams) a chic, miserable art gallery owner in a clearly unhappy marriage to expressionless hunk Armie Hammer. While he is away on a business trip for a barely concealed love affair, Susan receives a package from her ex-husband: a soon-to-be-published manuscript, dedicated to her, named “Nocturnal Animals.” As she begins to read, the second story, that told in the novel, begins to unfold onscreen.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a man driving through the bleak Texas night with his family, a red-headed woman who looks like Adams (Isla Fisher) and their teenage daughter. Soon, a horror-story confrontation unfolds as three maniacs run them off the road and, after a painfully drawn out scene in which Gyllenhaal fails to defend his family, the women are kidnapped.
That scene is the strongest in the film, a dreadfully suspenseful encounter that ends horribly. This contrasts with a horrified Susan in her luxurious home reading the story. The comparison between her and the doomed fictional wife is obvious, and she reveals that her ex-husband called her a nocturnal animal during their marriage.
In the film, Gyllenhaal portrays both the husband in the novel and, through flashbacks, Susan’s ex-husband Edward, the novel’s author. But the fictional wife’s fate isn’t the true revenge on Susan. Edward writes the male protagonist as a man accused of weakness and as he seeks justice for his family, he finally rejects this label. We see Edward fighting with Susan during their brief marriage, and she uses the same word, weak, to describe him. Susan isn’t just the murdered wife, she is the villainous murderer, committing the crime of underestimating Edward.
Insight into the brutal way Susan betrayed and abandoned Edward for her new husband is almost superfluous, and does nothing to make the Adams scenes more meaningful. The “Nocturnal Animals” novel plot only makes the “real” story of Edward and Susan that much less interesting, and the crime in this part is wasting Adams’ talent.
Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, gets to be both the sensitive writer-husband and the literally tortured husband in the story, complete with guttural howling and gunplay. Adams’ biggest moment is when she removes her dark lipstick, which signifies she was a hardened and brittle career woman. It was, admittedly, a terrible color on her.
It is satisfying to puzzle out how the two plots fit together and the film is visually stunning in parts. The Texas narrative has its exciting moments, especially when Michael Shannon’s grisly mug pops up as a sheriff with unconventional methods and nothing to lose. But the story itself, of Susan’s painful life decisions and their current repercussions, lack much depth or interest.
Susan is supposed to be an intelligent, perceptive woman, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to really see how much she was affected by the experience of reading Edward’s novel. We are shown, superficially, that she is shaken up, but in an effort to depict the glittering surface of her unsatisfying life in L.A., we’re subjected to an empty, unsatisfying film as well.
“Nocturnal Animals” is currently available to rent.