The Return of Tom Ford
Fashion designer Tom Ford’s sophomore directorial effort has a lot on its mind. It’s been nine years since Ford’s debut A Single Man: a film that sparked a late-career resurgence for Colin Firth, got Academy award attention, and wore a nice suit while doing it. Nocturnal Animals is a simpler beast. While A Single Man was a rare example of bringing queer cinema into the mainstream, Ford’s second film is a lot more traditional, even when it’s trying hard not to be.
Based on the novel Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright, the film follows Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a middle-aged art gallery owner who feels her life has become stagnant and unreal. While juggling the pressures of her job, and her collapsing second marriage, Susan receives a manuscript from Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), her first husband. The manuscript is Edward’s first novel, entitled Nocturnal Animals, and is dedicated to Susan. This is where the film goes left of field as it splits the narrative into three connected sections: Susan as she reads the novel, the events of the novel itself, and Susan’s memories of her doomed relationship with Edward.
The Artist And His Muse
It’s through these different narratives that the film’s themes come together, with the major one being the relationship between the artist and his muse. Through the film’s non-linear structure we begin to piece together different aspects of each story that informs the other. Edward’s novel is about a man (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose wife and daughter are kidnapped by rednecks and raped and murdered. As a viewer, you immediately ask why the hell he would send something like this to his ex-wife? And why the hell would she not put the book down immediately? Yet it’s the subtext of the novel’s ghoulish events that ring loud and clear: Edward always assumed Susan thought he was weak, and like a writer, he has exaggerated and embellished this feeling of emasculation into the subject matter of his novel. It’s a neat trick, he even has a ultra-masculine stand-in in the form of Detective Bobby Andes, played Michael Shannon and also the film’s best character, who helps his fictional self track down the men who murdered his family.
Ford does a lot of things right with Nocturnal Animals: it’s shot beautifully with sterile Los Angeles art scene (one shot in particular that shows the cars on the LA freeway like they’re blood cells flying through an artery is only one of the films standout visuals) contrasting with the gritty, sweaty Texas plains, and each narrative informs the other, but Nocturnal Animals is built on a rotten foundation.
Apart from Michael Shannon, the performances are not as impressive as they should be. Amy Adams should be quietly effective as Susan, even if she’s just reading a book for the entire film, but she comes off as contrived. Jake Gyllenhaal is a bigger disappointment as his role as Edward is nothing but spouting tortured artist clichés and his scenes with Adams are nauseating, and he’s only slightly better as the lead character in his novel. The problem is that despite all of the window dressing, Nocturnal Animals has been done before, and better. It’s a bitter film in which Edward is seen to be the hero because he didn’t give up on his dreams and that Susan is a bad person for doing the opposite, as if the artist said “screw you” in the form of a book.
It may look great, but Nocturnal Animals is as hollow as its lead character and as immature as its author.