Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Another Tom Ford film, another drama set mostly inside a character’s head, but this time, the passion the director showed in A Single Man is lacking and has been replaced by recurring removals of reading glasses.

Nocturnal AnimalsUSA
3*

Director:
Tom Ford

Screenwriter:
Tom Ford

Director of Photography:
Seamus McGarvey

Running time: 120 minutes

Once again probing the mental world of his main character, as he did with equally sumptuous visuals in A Single Man, Tom Ford follows up his much acclaimed début feature with another intimate psychological work, titled Nocturnal Animals. Taking a stab at metanarration, Ford evokes fear and anxiety in the viewer rather than any serious empathy for the characters, but instead of being emotionally engaging, this thriller is curiously superficial.

Opening at an exhibition with gorgeously composed full-frontal videos of corpulent elderly women dancing like cheerleaders in slow motion, the film quickly establishes the artistic surroundings of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the gallery owner. She seems melancholy and unfulfilled despite the show’s indisputable success and would later call it “junk, total junk”. (As a sidenote, I would encourage filmmakers to steer away from such descriptions of art in their films, as it makes the reviewer’s job of finding a pithy label for the relevant film way too easy.) Late at night, she returns to her carefully curated mansion with clean lines full of grey and black in the Hollywood Hills. Shortly after her car pulls in and the gate closes behind her, a dark-brown classic Mercedes pulls up.

The following morning, her butler shows her a package that has been delivered overnight. It is an as yet unpublished manuscript that shares its title with the film and is written by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t spoken to in nearly 20 years. From this point on, with her dapper husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), away on business in New York City and making little effort to keep it a secret he is cheating on her, Susan immerses herself in the novel, which is ominously dedicated to her.

In the very first shot depicting the action of the novel, we see the same dark-brown classic Mercedes, which is an easy but effective way of signalling to us that this tale is going to be rooted in Susan’s world; more specifically, the story is artistically autobiographical for its writer, Edward. The main character, Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), is leaving on holiday for West Texas with his wife and daughter, but on the way there, they are pulled off the road by a gang of young men who seem to be drunk but are likely just slightly psychotic.

Calling to mind the stunningly intense beginning of Andrew Neel’s Goat, Nocturnal Animals presents a scene of emotionally taxing (although at times too lengthy and repetitive) action that demonstrates how Tony’s timidity and desire to avoid conflict eventually results in a reluctance to be aggressive in protecting his family, a hesitation that quickly leads to tragedy. The point of contact between the two very different films, however, is the similarity in people’s reactions to this event: In both films, we feel with the intimidated victim as he is bullied or coerced into doing something he doesn’t want to, although the assailants never use a physical weapon of any kind. And in both films, people told of the altercation react with surprise that the victim did not fight back.

Gyllenhaal embodies a character we can wholly relate to despite his evident fear and confusion about the inexplicable violence committed against him and his family and his uncertainty about whether and how he should retaliate. This is something Tony Hastings struggles with until the climax, and even then he is far from comfortable acting in a way that makes logical sense but goes against everything he believes in.

It should be obvious from this short description that the story-within-a-story set in Texas is far more interesting than its shallow Los Angeles counterpart, despite Ford’s flimsy attempts at creating interlocking visual transitions, which for the most part compare very badly with those in a similarly themed film such as Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. In Daldry’s film, the point of the transitions were often to connect characters in ways that were immediately recognisable, with every shared tick creating a bond between people in a purely cinematic fashion. It made the viewer privy to private but revealing moments and left her feeling empowered in a way that is unconventional but wholly within the domain of the cinema.

Ford’s film, by contrast, while dutifully producing a disparate smattering of transitions (bright red lights, similar surroundings, an L-cut) in an attempt to bridge the chasm between the two worlds, is far less sure of itself. It half-heartedly suggests points of contact, but the traces are few and far between and would demand repeat viewings to unpack, if they even exist, thus making immediate enjoyment all but impossible.

Often, the cut is simple, but it always returns to the same laughable image: a shaken Susan on her sofa with the manuscript in her lap, removing her thick-framed glasses as a way to calm herself and return her to her immediate surroundings. Amy Adams is a wonderful actress, but the over-repeated earnestness loses its initial power and quickly devolves into a caricature of earnestness.

Ford manages to tie things up rather neatly with the climax in the hypodiegesis, although the diegesis, which is also split up into a past (read: flashbacks) and a present, is a different matter altogether. The final scene of Nocturnal Animals is truly a missed opportunity, as a melancholy wait replaces what could have been a forceful punch in the gut: What if Edward had shown up but was played by someone other than Jake Gyllenhaal?

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