Review: Nocturnal Animals
The film opens with the flailing nude bodies of multiple morbidly obese women. Shot in slow motion, this is our first foray into the surface world of Nocturnal Animals. This is art. That is the message as the opening credits roll over the women. You are witnessing art. And as this meta-tale plays out, Tom Ford seems determined to make sure that is the takeaway for the audience. From quick cuts between similarly arranged frames in different levels of the story, to the art-house world inhabited by many of the characters, Ford sets out to create a movie that reminds you it is art, but instead winds up not amounting to much. Its luster is bluster.
The surface-level story focuses on a woman named Susan Morrow (played competently by Amy Adams). Susan used to be married to an aspiring author, Edward Sheffield (played unevenly by Jake Gyllenhaal). On one level, the film is about their new lives as a now-divorced couple. Edward sends Susan a manuscript of his novel, Nocturnal Animals, which is his way of sending a message after the demise of their relationship. On another level, the film is the story within the novel, which begins as a frightening tale of road rage that morphs into a story about Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) seeking justice after his family is killed. The two worlds eventually come to a head as Susan becomes more and more enthralled by the story and she and Edward are set to see each other for the first time in years.
Like a pig in the mud, it starts low, and blissfully revels in its emptiness. Not nearly as self aware as it wants you to think, the movie magic is sparse as Ford reaches for story-within-a-story and fails on both levels. The condescension is so thick that it starts early and never relents. There are no appealing characters, few redeeming qualities, and at no point is there any sense that you are watching a movie that is as good as it thinks it is.
It's cardboard dialogue and empty characters seem to only serve to create an aesthetic that never even entirely works. Armie Hammer as Susan's new husband? As thin as the paper the script was printed on. Michael Shannon's bloodthirsty detective? As uninteresting as just about everything else in the story-within-the story. On one level there are stylish characters parading through luxuriously appointed interiors. Juxtapose that (and JUXTAPOSE Ford does) with a dirtier world removed from the main story that is meant to show a certain departure from the lives of the film's protagonists. The problem is that every technique is patently obvious and every element is obscenely banal. All of this together rings with a certain cold contempt that is reinforced by the aforementioned large, gyrating bodies we are supposed to ogle. No thank you, Mr. Ford.
Is this is a good film? Of course not. It is just a serious and sanctimonious one with very talented people involved. The chasmic difference is a certain watchability that is just lacking here as the film dodders along and fails to ever find its way beyond real-world book closings following fiction-world revelations. For some reason, Adams' character seems convinced that she is reading a quality novel, while it's clear to the audience that what she is actually reading is one-half of a disastrous tale. If the film had truly gone off the rails with ambition (a la Neon Demon), I could at least respect it. As is, beyond brief glimpses of Ford's talent in some of the horror-like sequences, there is nothing to see here.
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