Nocturnal Animals is all style, no substance
Starting as it means to go on, Nocturnal Animals opens with beautiful, Bernard Hermann-esque strings accompanying abrasive images of obese models posing nude. Mixing the sophisticated with the sleazy, sophomore director Tom Ford (A Single Man) has attempted to create both a classy, emotional arthouse film and a pulpy thriller. Unfortunately, he only succeeds on the latter.
To describe the plot of Nocturnal Animals is tricky, because it actually tells three stories. In the main arc of the film, we meet art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams), whose failing marriage to lawyer Hutton (an underused Armie Hammer) is interrupted when she receives a manuscript for a new novel. Written by estranged ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), the unpublished novel forms the superior second arc of the film as husband and father Tony (also Gyllenhaal) is helped by an intense lawman (Michael Shannon) when a gang of Texan rednecks rape and murder his wife and daughter. As Susan reads the novel, she begins to recognise herself and Edward within the novel (it’s no coincidence that Isla Fisher is cast to represent Adams’ character), and we flash back to their marriage, which was brought down by a ‘brutal’ act committed by Susan.
Though the plot of Nocturnal Animals, adapted from an Austin Wright novel, seems complex, flashing from fact to fiction and spanning across decades, only the novel-within-a-film ever registers as a compelling narrative. Amy Adams is one of the finest actresses of her generation, but there’s only so much she can do when her role mostly involves nervously reading a novel and moping in the bath. Her modern day scenes come across as unbelievable and shoddily written; an early moment in which she talks with unfaithful husband Hutton is a mess of blatant exposition and stilted line delivery. As the main focus of the film, Adams’ character and the conclusions she comes to are supposed to be the emotional core of the film, but it’s hard to care.
Similarly, the flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s failed marriage don’t provide much in the way of drama. Despite excellent make-up work to make the two leads look younger (which is deserving of an Oscar-nomination), the scenes are rather bland, and not even Laura Linney’s spikey presence in a one-scene cameo (as Adams’ mother, despite being only ten years older) can rescue generic expositional dialogue. Nocturnal Animals is based around a central revelation – what brutal act did Susan commit against Edward which destroyed their marriage? – so it’s a disappointment when the dark secret is revealed to be about as dramatic as the average episode of Eastenders.
Thankfully, most of Nocturnal Animals is devoted to the eponymous novel-within-a-film, and it is here that Ford really excels, offering sublime evidence that he has the makings of an excellent thriller-director inside him. After the stilted opening, Nocturnal Animals kicks into gear with the long, horribly-tense scene in which Gyllenhaal and his family are forced off the road and brutalised by the gang of rednecks, headed up by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the best performance of his career by some margin (let this be a lesson to bland leading men; the life of a character actor isn’t so bad). Gripping, unpleasant, anxiety-inducing; the scene is one of the best of the year, and leads to better things with the arrival of Sherriff Michael Shannon, an actor who, like Gyllenhaal, makes everything he appears in slightly better. Had the entirety of Nocturnal Animals been dedicated to this modern Western, it probably would have been a contender for film of the year.
Frustratingly, there are flashes of brilliance to be found within Nocturnal Animals. Tom Ford has an eye for visuals, but he’s let down a weak script and a lack of any real intrigue. The novel-within-a-film approach allows for great acting and better characters than anywhere else in the film, but it just doesn’t resonate; Susan is apparently haunted by the novel and recognises herself within it, but that effect rarely comes across (apart from Susan dropping the book in fright, the unintentional comedy highlight). Perhaps those elements will become clearer on repeated watches; for now, there’s little here but excellent performances and visuals. Like its anticlimactic final scene, Nocturnal Animals adds up to a disappointing experience.
By Harry J. Ford
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