In Nocturnal Animals Tom Ford blends the contemporary coldness of Nicolas Winding Refn with a gritty, modern Texas Western. Results are mixed. Actually, “blends” probably isn’t the best way to describe the mashing of aesthetics because each remains too disparate to have a meaningful influence on the other. The second film from the fashion designer, following 2009’s A Single Man, is pretty and polished, but ultimately flavorless.
Amy Adams plays Susan, an art gallery owner who stares blankly during her big opening and then retreats to her grand mid-century modern home and stares blankly out the floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s the typical sad, attractive, rich person scenario, complete with a loveless marriage to a guy named Hutton (Armie Hammer).
Susan receives a manuscript from author ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), along with a note asking an opinion on his new novel, Nocturnal Animals. As she reads, the film plays out the action on the pages. She imagines Edward as the main character, a man driving through desolate West Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). They’re menaced by a pack of three hooligans with tragic results. Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) investigates the case.
Shannon is a delightful distraction from the film’s vapid, way-to-serious moralizing, providing personality and brightening the mood with a mix of light and dark humor. Aaron Taylor-Johnson also stands out as the main ruffian, an unemotional and seriously evil danger. His first encounter with Edward and his family is filled with an inevitable sense of dread; it’s a fleeting moment of real anxiety within Ford’s script, adapted from the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. So, we’ve got a movie based on a novel about a woman reading a novel and imagining a movie. How meta.
The movie, however, fails to communicate tangible emotional gravity for the main characters. Gyllenhaal is anguished – often exaggeratedly so, Adams is detached and sorrowful. They’re props in shifting tones and never feel like real people. Most of the time Gyllenhaal isn’t real, he’s imagined by Susan. There’s no way for us to know how much of his avatar comes from the pages of his manuscript and how much of it is Susan’s projection. Sure, there’s analogy involving machismo and grief that could translate from the Cormac McCarthy-like tome to the couple’s past relationship, though nothing feels deeply consequential.
Flashbacks that show snippets of Susan and Edward’s real-life courtship and marriage don’t cut deep enough to bleed effectively into the symbolic narrative. If we pay attention, we can see objects and themes that pop up in Susan’s interpretation of the novel, but in a strictly superficial way. Like Susan’s gallery installation, it’s striking without being affecting. It’s also too restrictively cynical to trick us into being shocked or saddened.
Though the layers of narrative remain too rigid without enough comingling of substance, Ford and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey capture the varied landscapes elegantly – from the Texas High Plains to the dreary majesty of New York and Los Angeles. If only there were something of significance operating within the scenery. When the big, phony gut-punches come in the final act, they’re met with a resounding, “That’s it?”
The Blu-ray release includes three making-of featurettes, a DVD copy of the film, and a digital version.