This visually arresting but somewhat vacuous drama from Tom Ford (A Single Man), has an abundance of intriguing elements but never quite gels in a coherent manner. With it’s playful approach to style and genre, unconventional narrative structure and superb cast, Nocturnal Animals is a surprising, complex and multi-layered film. It just lacks an emotional core and it’s contrived characters are so painfully unrealistic that it is difficult to connect with on a humanistic level.
Based on the book Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, the story centres on L.A art dealer Susan (Amy Adams) whose seemingly idyllic existence is nothing but a facade. Her marriage to a trophy husband (Armie Hammer) is failing and her professional life is abject misery. When she receives an unpublished manuscript in the mail, we discover that it is the work of her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) who she hasn’t seen or heard from in 20 years. As she starts reading, ghosts from her past are awoken and the film throws a stunning curve ball at the audience. The plot of the novel becomes the basis for another film entirely. We’re suddenly transported into the violent badlands of Texas where a young family on a road trip are terrorised by a bunch of psychotic rednecks and subjected to a terrible ordeal. The two seemingly disparate narratives start to thread together and form the basis for the remnant of the film. As we switch from one world to another, an interconnected mystery unfolds where themes of love, tragedy, betrayal and revenge all rise to the surface.
Ford is as well known for his striking fashion design as he is for his filmmaking. His distinctive visual sensibility is undoubtedly the most notable aspect of this film. Each image has a startling clarity and precisely constructed look and feel. Light, tone and colour are all utilised to create a stunning aesthetic effect. The locations portrayed in this film are beautifully captured with the cool interiors of Susan’s Los Angeles apartment and the nostalgic hue of New York City contrasting dramatically with the hard boiled noir of the Texan desert landscape. Ford seems to be revelling in his craft, convincing with his shifts in atmosphere and style to create a jarring and at times spellbinding cinematic experience. He also knows how to get strong performances from the cast. There’s an array of talent involved with Amy Adams an utterly hypnotic screen presence. Jake Gyllenhaal is on fine form, inhabiting two characters with the dark and unpredictable vulnerability which defined his finest work on Donnnie Darko and Nightcrawler. Michael Shannon is excellent as a terminally ill and morally ambiguous detective while Aaron Taylor Johnson channels his inner evil as an unhinged backwater psycho. There’s also small but effective contributions from Laura Linney, Isla Fisher and Jena Malone. The calibre of actors involved suggests that Ford is fast establishing himself as an attractive proposition for Hollywood’s elite.
It’s a pity then that the characters are hollow and uninvolving. Not caring for their narrative journey is detrimental to the film’s overall impact. Nocturnal Animals is ultimately a diverting exercise in style over substance. Elegant and slick, melodramatic and hackneyed, violent and sleazy, it’s an intriguing mess of ingredients that is constantly entertaining and visually engaging. Unfortunately, when you scratch beyond the surface, there’s very little underneath.