Tom Ford’s sophomore attempt follows Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner who is struggling to be happy in her rich luxurious life. This is reflected in the beautiful but incredibly cold aesthetic present in her section of the story. She receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), that is dedicated to her. Reading this strange, demented tale of revenge in West Texas leads her to reminisce somewhat nostalgically about her life with Edward. The film is thus split between the present, her past and the novel. Each has its own style and mood, with the shots of the past drenched in this wistful tint, and the scenes set in West Texas taking on a grittier, dirtier feel.
All of the leads in this story are admittedly superb, doing great work with what they are given. Amy Adams is cold and stern and emotionally shattered at times, just about holding it together. The problem however is that she feels cruelly underwritten. Her character is only half there, with Adams admirably trying to fill in the rest on the fly. She is barely recognisable as a real human being. We, as an audience, have no way to connect to her emotionally, and thus have no real inroad into the movie itself. We are kept at an uncomfortable distance, unable to be truly moved by the happenings on screen. Then again perhaps that is the point. She is just as cold as the world she inhabits.
Armie Hammer’s cheating husband however is generic and rather useless except as a plot point to pile on the dismay in Susan’s life. Gyllenhaal though is magnificent in his dual role as Tony and Edward. These roles make full use of his quite incredible range, and thus despite his characters’ sensitivity, he is also able to tap into the unhinged side that made Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler so compelling. Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor Johnson are suitably unnerving and add greatly to the unsettling atmosphere. Being character’s within a novel, something in a way almost entirely separate from the film at hand, allows them great freedom.
There is a particularly scene that runs and runs and runs and it is honestly rather superb. The tension builds and builds, until the final moment of devastation. Unfortunately for Nocturnal Animals the scene takes place in the opening half of the movie, and no matter how hard it tries it can never reach the same level again. The tension is there, and it is certainly enjoyable cinema, but it just never packs the same amount of punch.
Ford certainly has an interesting approach to filmmaking. His incredible style is unquestioned, but the actual substance and storytelling of his work has come under criticism in both of his movies so far. Here his storytelling decisions will once again divide. Gyllenhaal’s Edward, Susan’s ex husband and the man who wrote the book she is reading, is surprisingly absent throughout most of the film. Instead his psyche is presented only through the actions of his fictional protagonist Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal. It’s an interesting approach, but it means that the moments between Susan and Edward are less affecting than perhaps they would have been had we been given more of their actual relationship. Instead we only see small slivers of the past before the climax of the movie. It appears there should be two great devastating moments towards the end. Both however just fall rather flat, leaving the audience thinking “Wait, was that it?”. Therefore unsurprisingly the final scene will be met with mixed reactions.
It’s certainly not a film for everyone. Strangely it reminded me a little of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon from earlier this year, although i would argue Winding Refn’s effort was even more stylised than the designer Ford’s. Both however end with a bizarre thud when the preceding hour and a half promise something perhaps more gripping.