Nocturnal Animals begins with one of the strangest opening credits sequences from this past year: a slow-motion montage of obese women dancing in the nude, wearing a few patriotic hats and layers of makeup on their faces. It’s unnerving and uncomfortable to watch, and serves mostly to keep the audience wondering what sort of film they’re about to experience. And it’s certainly an experience. This David-Lynch-meets-perfume-commercial aesthetic pervades director/designer Tom Ford’s second feature, a twisted thriller which feels like a mashup between Straw Dogs and The Neon Demon in its beautiful cinematic textures attempting to cover up its weak, conventional script.
Nocturnal Animals contains two parallel narratives, with art imitating life and vice versa. The film centers on art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives and reads through the manuscript of her ex-husband Edward’s novel, a disturbing revenge thriller about a family tormented by a run-in with a cadre of goons in the empty desert of West Texas. As she reads the tale, the story plays itself out on-screen; the film moves between the novel’s world and Susan’s real-life response as she contemplates why her ex-husband would dedicate such a graphic, terrifying story to her. As she recalls the demise of her marriage to Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal, who also portrays Tony, the husband character in the novel), she becomes increasingly aware of the love that was lost, and the tragic consequences of the life she chose for herself. The novel world and the “real” world interplay with one another through analogous shots and characters. Having Isla Fisher play the wife in the novel feels like a wink to the Adams/Fisher mistaken identities (it also made me think of Bryce Dallas Howard and Jessica Chastain’s similar dilemma. Apparently folks cannot tell red-headed actresses apart?)
Both Tony and Edward are described as being sensitive (at best) and weak (at worst). The film’s script follows suit; this is a story which attempts emotional depth, but the script simply isn’t strong enough to truly delve under the surface of these beautiful, rich people throwing their lives away. It’s all mood and surface, to a fault. The glossy cinematography, especially for the Los Angeles scenes, is nice to look at for awhile, but there’s not much underneath it. Amy Adams portrays both 20-something coming-of-age Susan and 40-something mid-life-crisis Susan with excellence and authenticity; she’s a remarkable actress, but the script often hamstrings her quietly affecting performance by giving on-the-nose dialogue. Similarly, Jake Gyllenhaal is at his Nightcrawler-like best in his portrayal of Tony, but the scenes as Edward didn’t convince me he was charming enough to woo Adams’ character, nor that he was the sort who would send such a disturbing novel to his ex-wife. The film has two other great performances, one from Michael Shannon as a fading Texas detective, whose wide-eyed stare and Texas mannerisms remind me of why Shannon is one of my favorite actors working today. The other performance comes from Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the violent reprobate who initiates the attack on Tony’s family, channeling the crazy in a way that would make Ben Foster proud.
In a scene in Susan’s gallery, she walks by a giant painting containing one huge word in bold: REVENGE. Immediately after this, she has a startling flash to an image of Taylor-Johnson’s character, a jump scare intended to keep the audience discombobulated as it signifies Susan’s own unsettled psyche. Did she make the wrong decision in leaving Edward? Is he trying to send her a message through this novel? The contrast between Susan and Edward comes across too pointedly. “I’m a realist,” she tells him in an argument; “You’re the romantic.” The film is either too heavy-handed–a giant REVENGE poster?!–or too enigmatic, never quite finding a balance between its intertwining narratives. Despite its strong performances and fashion-designer aesthetic, Nocturnal Animals is simply an extravagant mess of a film, an ambitious experiment in story-telling which ends up being superficial artifice.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4550098/