Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) lives a privileged life she finds herself smothered by: The perfect job, house and husband do little to satisfy her, and a surprise manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) opens old wounds as his thrilling tale of murder and revenge echoes old tensions from their early years.
Tom Ford, the director and noted fashion designer, made his film debut with A Single Man, an achingly beautiful tale of bereavement and loneliness that many critics suggested demonstrated his strengths with the stylistic elements of film-making over more substantive fare. Nocturnal Animals feels like a direct response to such criticisms, with the duel stories interweaving between reality and fiction and exposing the hollowness of a superficial life. While its ambitions are lofty, its reach doesn’t match them, and moments that are seemingly intended to critique those expectations fall flat.
The biggest problem with the film is the issue presented by its central conceit – the dueling stories that flash between Susan’s mundane LA life and the story she reads, featuring Tony (played by Gyllenhaal) and his family’s struggle as they encounter a band of malicious hillbillies. The latter – almost like a Sam Peckinpah film in its gritty revenge stylings – is so much more interesting than the former, and leaves the viewer craving a full two hours with Tony and his sheriff collaborator (the always wonderful Michael Shannon). It all feels rather unfair to Adams, who so dazzled with her effortless luminosity in Arrival, yet is left to do little in her storyline beyond look sad and beautiful. She does both with aplomb and could probably spin gold from air if the director called for it, but the script’s unwillingness to truly delve into the paranoia her character experiences because of the book feels like a wasted opportunity for director and actress alike.
Overall, the actors in the Susan storyline have far less to work with than those in the Edward’s book: Laura Linney shines in her sole scene as Susan’s contemptuous mother, and Michael Sheen and Jena Malone are there seemingly as part of a day out with Ford. Edward’s story gives Gyllenhaal an opportunity to demonstrate his innate abilities to balance alluring masculinity with sweet sensitivity. Edward was criticized as weak by Susan and her mother, and his fictional doppelganger exorcises those insecurities through that most manly of tales. The surprise scene stealer is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who revels in his role as a petty criminal with equal parts smarm and threat. Shannon is the scene-stealer: Is there an actor currently working who can exude such bizarre glee and pathos with a mere look?
There are a couple of moments throughout that highlight an uncomfortable element of voyeurism the film focuses on that seems exclusive to the female characters of the piece. One of those moments is the opening of the film: A series of shots of larger, older women, joyfully dancing while wearing nothing but marching boots and pom-poms. It’s a jarring and striking scene that could have established Nocturnal Animals as something far stranger and more transgressive than it is. Said scene is never mentioned or alluded to again throughout the film. The second involves the fates of the women in Edward’s story (one of whom is played by Adams’s professional double, Isla Fisher), which takes the form of a display not unlike a Titian painting. Beautiful: Yes. Uncomfortable and objectifying: A little. There’s a lot to look at throughout – Ford has, if nothing else, an incredible eye for detail – but little to catch the imagination for longer than a few moments beyond occasional questioning of just how much women get to be people.
All in all, Ford’s potential as an auteur is staggering, and Nocturnal Animals is a fascinating effort that’s often striking and gripping. At its best, it’s a retro thriller with stylings to die for; at its worst, it’s a window dressing seeking a story.