Nocturnal Animals (2016, Dir. Tom Ford) admirably aspires. It hopes to be a thriller, taught with suspense and surprise. It longs to be a drama, bursting with desperation, doubt, fury, and regret. And it yearns for nuance, as it attempts to weave a complex web of characterization through bold devices and expressionistic choices. The end result, alas, is a flat, bizarre, pretentious slog that collapses under the weight of its heady ideas and does an insulting disservice to its otherwise terrifically talented cast.
Writer/Director Tom Ford’s sophomore foray into cinema (based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan) stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams as two former lovers who reestablish contact under mysterious circumstances. Susan Morrow (Adams), an art gallery owner, receives a package from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal): a novel titled Nocturnal Animals written by Sheffield. As Susan reads the novel, we’re treated to a cinematic representation of its story, also starring Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings. In the novel, Tony runs into an aggressive group of motorists while on a road trip with his wife and daughter, resulting in a crime that requires the help of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). As Susan reads the novel we’re given quick glimpses of her present-day life, her career and her marriage to Hutton Morrow (Arnie Hammer), and of her past life, falling in and out of love with Edward.
As a piece of writing, Nocturnal Animals falls flat on the screen. Its dialogue vague and uninteresting, it hopes to leave room for performance to color in characterizational gaps, but instead leaves its stars appearing unskilled and silly as they deliver stilted declarations and awkward personal exchanges. The film’s particular disinterest with emotional characterization comes to the fore in Tony’s interaction with his wife and daughter. While little time is spent on the quirks or subtleties of Tony’s family, Nocturnal Animals belabors and draws out the behavior of their main villainous captor, a kind of top-heavy narrative strategy that replaces potential tension with bizarre pseudo-comedy (one need only look to Psycho (1960) to see the importance of getting to know a character before they’re taken away).
While Adams and Gyllenhaal are unsurprising casting choices in a work of this pedigree, their performances feel constrained by the strangely written types they’re shackled with. Adams does her best as a largely stone-faced, internally struggling woman with little physicalized emotion than far-away gazes and brushes of the hair, and Gyllenhaal flounders as he makes due with a beta, sensitive, female-coded type male who also happens to be tall, handsome, and muscular. Shannon does far and away the best job with his part, brimming with barely surfacing rage and madness-hinting menace—essentially the prototypical Shannon role.
A Single Man’s (2009) brilliance is kept in mind through Ford’s repetition of formal techniques in Animals (saturated colors, jump cuts, and quick expressionistic flashbacks), but the moves feel out of place in a story so rooted in genre. His ability to piece together a tense scene is inconsistent and sloppy, and he sometimes miscalculates increased tension with increased length, dragging out sequences to an unpleasant degree.
Ideologically Nocturnal Animals has little value. One can sense it clawing at some sort of statement on class, with it’s poor, rural characters all maintaining a version of lawlessness and madness, and its lavishly wealthy characters seeming aloof and distant. Aesthetically, the film is bananas for the rich and can’t much stand the poor. The ultra-wealthy sip iced coffees and thoughtfully contemplate themselves in their luxurious homes, while the rural impoverished literally shit outside and resort to violence to solve their problems. It’s the lower class that sends Tony on his emotional topspin and encourages him to develop a version of masculinity, revealing Ford to be a trader of stereotype, picking freely from notions of “virile, savage poor folk” and “emotional, fey, artistic men.”
Perhaps the film’s most egregious fault is its rare feat of being simultaneously condescending and dumb, beating its audience over the head with graphic matches and tell-don’t-show dialogue that encourage obvious connections with little thought beyond what lies on the screen.
Nocturnal Animals represents a missed opportunity, a violation to what could otherwise be fruitful material; the novel-as-relationship-metaphor is a potentially potent device that in other hands could yield profundity. In his mark-missing, Ford’s directorial inexperience shows, and while it’s clear he’s intent on becoming an auteur, it’s unclear whether he’s consistently capable of recognizing and harnessing his skillset.