Languid, heavy-handed and schematic, Nocturnal Animals reflects the artistic ambitions of writer/director Tom Ford.
Seven years after his first film, A Single Man, enjoyed modest acclaim for its stylish period setting and restrained thematic elements, as well as an Academy Award nomination for Colin Firth’s leading performance, Nocturnal Animals arrives with elevated expectations.
This time, Ford has adapted Tony and Susan, a novel by Austin Wright that was first published in 1993. The bones of the novel remain in place, though Ford has made notable changes to reflect his personal vision.
Susan Morrow owns a struggling art gallery and is unhappily married to philandering businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer). Susan enjoys all the trappings of material success but is clearly dissatisfied with her life. One day she is surprised to receive a manuscript from her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). She has not heard from him in the 19 years since they divorced; now he has completed a novel that will be published soon and wants her to be the first “outsider” to read it.
As Susan begins reading, the novel is dramatized on screen. Set in Texas, it revolves around Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) as he sets off on a road trip one night across West Texas (to Marfa) with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber).
They have a fateful encounter with three stereotypically horrible automotive hooligans (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo), leaving Tony to deal with the tragic aftermath, in tandem with wily police investigator Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). The dual storylines are eventually joined by a third, in which the present-day Susan is haunted by memories of her failed relationship with Edward.
The evident intention is for the three storylines to comment on and illuminate each other, though the connections are blatantly obvious and grow increasingly wearisome, and occasionally risible, because they’re so pointedly lacking any fresh insights. The contrast in visual styling is similarly obvious.
Susan’s moody, stylish life in the modern day is lit like a fashion magazine layout and deliberately paced. The potboiler theatrics of the novel are lit garishly and hopped up like a rabbit on speed. Susan’s recollections are filmed in a style indistinguishable from the present day, which is occasionally confusing, since Adams and Gyllenhaal can no longer pass for people in their early or mid-twenties.
Considering all three narratives together, what emerges is a heroic, if tragic, portrait of Edward/Tony and a punishing characterization of Susan, a sinner who is not granted forgiveness, either by herself or Edward/Tony or the universe. The underlying message is not terribly favorable for women, not for Susan, most obviously; not for Tony’s fictional wife and daughter, who are victimized viciously; and not even for women who are barely glimpsed, such as an art gallery assistant (Jena Malone) or Susan’s mother (Laura Linney), who is highly critical yet proves to be uncannily prophetic.
An unpleasant and turgid movie, Nocturnal Animals plods ever onward, eventually stopping, as opposed to reaching a conclusion. In this case, it’s very helpful for the end credits to begin rolling as a signal that one can leave the theater.
The film opens on Friday, November 18, at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, Landmark Magnolia, and AMC Northpark 15.