Film Review: Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s fashionable thriller, cut on the bias, will appeal to loyal audience.
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Tom Ford, celebrated fashion designer turned filmmaker, enjoyed wide acclaim for his debut feature, A Single Man, then took seven years to make his second movie. The long gestation reflects his hands-on approach to his adopted craft—he writes, produces and directs his films—but also creates great expectations among critics and fans. Ford does not disappoint his audience: Stylish thriller Nocturnal Animals offers arresting visuals, voguish couture and au courant narrative feints.

Amy Adams (as art entrepreneur Susan Morrow) looks marvelous (“I can safely say that I have never had a more beautiful wardrobe in any film that I have done”); her L.A. milieu of creepy aesthetes (who discuss the merits of their psychopharmacologists) is drolly spoofed. Michael Shannon (as phlegmatic lawman Bobby Andes) delivers yet another disturbing performance of an American Gothic; his West Texas wasteland of tumbleweed, cinder block and sociopaths channels classic pulp fiction. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as one of said sociopaths) hams it up during the movie’s extended, genuinely harrowing hijacking scene; he plays the foil to Jake Gyllenhaal (as everyman Tony Hastings), the timorous urbanite who fails to protect his wife and daughter when evil comes calling.

As might be inferred from the above, Nocturnal Animals is a story-within-a-story, both of which fall within a frame—in effect, a thrice-told tale. We meet Susan Morrow on what should be a night of triumph, her gallery opening of grossly obese nudes laid out like beached whales. Yet Susan is distraught, aware that the art, like her life, is a fake. Her marriage (to Armie Hammer, looking like a Tom Ford model) is kaput, her finances are cooked, and she can’t sleep. The following day, she receives an unexpected package from her ex-husband (Gyllenhaal as writer-manqué Edward Sheffield), whom she hasn’t spoken with for two decades. Suffering a portentous paper cut as she opens it, she finds inside the manuscript of his soon-to-be-published novel, a brutal crime story involving rape, murder and vigilante justice. As Susan reads the book, she recalls her life with Edward—their gauzy romance, their brief marriage, their excruciating breakup. For the remainder of the movie, Ford switches back and forth between the “real” Edward and Susan and the “fictional” Tony and Laura Hastings (a stand-in for Susan played by Isla Fisher), the stories not so much interweaving as commenting on one another.

This is standard stuff, but Ford assembled a first-rate team, augmenting his Single Man collaborators (composer Abel Korzeniowski, costumer Arianne Phillips, editor Joan Sobel) with noted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, Anna Karenina) to assure a glossy if not engrossing film. Nocturnal Animals doesn’t quite succeed, never pushes past the entertaining but obvious satire, social commentary and usual violence. The chief difficulty is that, in the end, none of the characters is appealing or even sympathetic, with the exception of Shannon’s renegade cop, who inexplicably disappears as the film lurches toward its predictable climax. Much ado is made about the weakness of Gyllenhaal’s characters (versions of the same man), yet neither ever acts; well, Sheffield does write the book, an act of creation, but the notion of art triumphing over sorrow and pity seems almost a parody of the rest of the film. Adams is well-accessorized (horned-rimmed reading glasses accentuating her introspection), but so understated as to be, ironically, soporific. Laura Linney’s cameo as Adam’s ur-belle mother seems to sum up the director’s approach: boffo hairdo but derivative performance. Ford writes good dialogue, however, unexpectedly one of his assets as a filmmaker. He keeps us watching despite that we know what’s coming, a talent less applauded than his undeniable savior-faire.

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