Seven years ago fashion designer Tom Ford set aside the catwalk and ventured into Hollywood movie-making, and the result was the visually exquisite A Single Man, which earned Colin Firth a much-deserved Oscar nomination. Ford slipped back into his comfortable world, only to re-emerge with a chip on his shoulder with Nocturnal Animals, a film with a mocking view on beauty, art, masculinity, and justice. That viewpoint is expressed only so far as to not interfere with the meta revenge plot at the story's core. Leave it to Ford to make a vengeance film that could double as a Gucci ad it's so gorgeous.
Nocturnal Animals comes in two distinct flavors, and how much you enjoy it will depend on your feelings of both. It's clear from the beginning that Ford aims to shock, with a Bond-esque opening credits showcasing naked obese women dressed as majorettes slo-motion dancing to Abel Korzeniowski's swooning score. We learn that it is part of an art exhibit put on by Susan (Amy Adams), one of those flagrantly wealthy people too disaffected to care about anything that isn't right in front of their faces. She's lives a life of riches, but remains unhappily married to her husband (Armie Hammer), who cares so little about her that he barely hides his adultery. With the exception of her insomnia, there's very little that Ford tells us about Susan; we pick it up in the little things she does. For instance, she barely seems to care that they are going broke. In fact, it's barely an issue at all.
Susan's insomnia earned her the nickname "nocturnal animal" from her previous husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an artsy-fartsy writer that her mother (played by a deliciously venomous Laura Linney) warned her against marrying. They haven't spoken in twenty years, but out of the blue he sends her a manuscript for "Nocturnal Animals" and dedicates it to her. She had hated his writing once; that was a big part of why they split up, the other being the mediocre life he all-but-guaranteed she'd have. But this book she can't put down.
Ford isn't the kind of director we'd assume to make a pulpy crime thriller but I'm convinced it may be his secret calling. He smoothly moves us away from the gilded luxury of Susan's life into a gritty B-movie cesspool where family man Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal, meaning Susan imagines Edward in the role) is taking his family on a road trip through a remote area of Texas. There he, his wife (Isla Fisher), and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are set upon by a trio of roughnecks (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Rob Aramayo) who take particular glee in tormenting the women in front of a helpless Tony. It's a stretch of time as bleak and seemingly unending as the barren desert itself. It's pretty tough to watch, and Ford forces you to endure every moment, even though we know from the beginning it will not end happily.
Like pretty much every movie he's in, Michael Shannon arrives and things pick up considerably. He chews up the scenery, the film stock, his giant cowboy hat, everything, as Lieutenant Andes, a Texas lawman on a vendetta to get some payback for Tony. At first it doesn't seem that way, though. Through Andes' probing questions we can sense Ford exploring the idea of masculinity, and what it means for a man to be the protector of his family. It turns out, this idea is not only something Tony had to face in Texas of all places, but Edward had to deal with it in the real world. It's handled considerably better within Edward's novelization, it turns out, but that's because that aspect of the film is the most enjoyable. Susan's reality, in which she moves from one expensive-looking piece of furniture to the next or quibbles with work colleagues about various trivialities, simply don't have the depth of the fiction-with-a-fiction narrative.
Ford can't help himself behind the camera, either; he's clearly a perfectionist incapable of a boring shot. The colors pop and the fashion practically screams for your attention. Just look at the garish ensemble put together by Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, and Jena Malone's characters. They look like emissaries from the future. Too bad we only get one scene with each with them. The same goes for Adams in a stylized-but-substance free performance a far cry from her powerhouse work on Arrival where she's considerably dressed-down. She's good, as always, but Susan's story just isn't that compelling, and I found myself wanting to return to the dark side of Edward's novel.
Nocturnal Animals shares a lot in common, at least in tone, tenor, and shallowness, with Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon. They are both also indescribably beautiful, with both directors wielding that beauty as their strongest weapon and sturdiest defense. In the end, Ford's film turns out to be a lot like the overweight dancers from the beginning. It's impossible to turn away from and gives the impression of deeper meaning somewhere within, but ultimately there isn't much that is actually being said.
Rating: 3 out of 5