DIR: Tom Ford • PRO: Tom Ford, Alexandra Nourafchan, Diane L. Sabatini, Robert Salerno • DOP: Seamus McGarvey • ED: Joan Sobel • DES: Shane Valentino • MUS: Abel Korzeniowski • CAST: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor Johnsen, Karl Glusman, Arnie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Laura Linney, Jena Malone, Michael Sheen
Successful LA gallery owner Jane (Adams) is stuck in an unhappy marriage with unfaithful Hutton (Hammer). One day she receives a package in the post from her former lover Tony (Gyllenhaal). This package contains a manuscript titled Nocturnal Animal – a nasty, violent novel Tony has penned and dedicated to Susan. As Susan begins to read the piece we cross-cut between her life and the fictional actions in the novel in which Edward (also Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Fisher) and his daughter Inida (Bamber) are terrorized on a road trip in West Texas by a group of vicious thugs led by Taylor Johnsen’s Ray Marcus. After the gang kidnap Laura and India, Edward is forced to team up with an old-school, chain-smoking detective (the always eminently watchable Shannon) to seek retribution. As we cross-cut between the fictional world and Susan’s glossy empty real-life, as well as earlier episodes in her and Tony’s relationship, it becomes apparent that Tony’s novel may have more veiled resonances in relation to the story of him and his ex-lover.
Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford follows-up 2010’s A Single Man with this stylish, diverting, rather empty piece of meta-fiction. The film has plenty to recommend it. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography juxtaposes gloss and grit to delectable effect. Abel Korzeniowski’s music nods to Hithcock and classic noir without ever over-egging the homages. Shane Valentino’s production design captures the tasteful decadence of the LA art world Susan inhabits to pleasing effect. Ford has also assembled an excellent cast of actors who are uniformly excellent. Adams is as reliable as ever as the glacial, outwardly strong Susan. It’s a difficult performance to pull off with Susan’s character arc being largely internal. Adams deftly skirts over-dramatization in the frequent cut-backs of her reactions to parts of Tony’s novel. She also manages to subtly paint a picture of someone consumed with regret, though she doesn’t get a whole lot to work with in terms of her character. She occasionally gets the opportunity to show some tenderness in scenes between her and Tony in happier times and some nods towards her relationship with her mother which offer a little depth. For the most part, however, the character of Susan simply lacks the complexity and emotional depth needed to make something genuinely compelling, as good as Adams is.
The film is at its most visceral in scenes set in the fictional world of Tony’s novel. Michael Shannon commands the screen in a performance bristling with nuance as the grizzled old-school detective. Perhaps, most surprising is a standout performance from Taylor-Johnsen as the skin-crawlingly wretched leader of the gang who kidnap Edward’s family. This section of the film acts as an essay on disparate notions of masculinity – the gentle, kind but weak Edward and the revolting, violent Ray Marcus acting as Edward’s exact opposite with Shannon’s Bobby meeting them somewhere in between.
And herein also lies the film’s biggest problem – the juxtaposition, both tonally and thematically, between the two narratives never quite fits. The cold but broadly painted picture of Susan and the LA art scene with that of Tony’s violent noir comes across as a gimmicky manner in which to engage with the film’s subject matter in a unique way as opposed to ever feeling like it’s a cohesive whole. The film’s attempts to comment on the nature of life versus art and that of an artist and his work are clunky and one-dimensional.
The commentary on relationships also seems rather one-note. Susan treated Jake badly in the manner in which she ended their relationship, and this is Tony’s way of responding. The questions of masculinity raised in his book also relate to Susan’s perception of Tony being weak and docile. It seems unlikely that Tony abstracting his feelings on his and Susan’s relationship to such an extreme, simplistic and trashy degree would have such a profound effect on someone as single-minded as Susan. And even if it did, it still seems a rather futile gesture. The film’s story can essentially be summed up as: jilted writer gets revenge on ex-girlfriend by writing an extreme, angry pulpy thriller that acts as a message about how he feels about their time together and how it ended. This is a message that appears veiled to an audience, not privy to all of the information surrounding Tony and Susan’s break-up until the closing stages, but that must surely seem like a fairly obvious one to the character herself.
Gyllenhaal (also excellent) faces the same problems as Adams before him. We gather that the Edward character in Tony’s novel is a representation of Tony himself but we never get to know anything of his character beyond the fact that he is nice and gentle and that people prey on his weakness. The idea that Tony finally gains some form of strength in writing this novel as an act of cathartic revenge, is handled in a very one-dimensional manner and the film never gets to the grips with its ideas in any facet beyond a surface level.
There are undoubtedly some standout scenes along the way – the initial scene where Edward and his family get terrorized is terrifically menacing – and it’s impossible not to root for Shannon’s detective as he goes about dishing out his unique style of justice. But when the most interesting character in a film is a support part in a fictional thread then one must question the fruitfulness of the piece as a whole. If this were a smarter film perhaps this could be perceived as a joke in itself and a commentary on the nature of art but sadly the chunkiness of the film’s engagement with its meta-narrative and the wholly cosmetic ideas it engages with puts paid to this argument.
There are certainly far worse films being made than this and it is certainly an entertaining ride. However, the film lacks the substance it seems to strive for, never really justifies its structure to any meaningful degree and, ultimately, doesn’t match the sum of its parts.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Nocturnal Animals is released 4th November 2016