However I may want to classify Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, as either Paul Verhoeven or Brian De Palma-lite or some middle-brow rendition of Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, it ultimately comes across as dismissive and in the pejorative. It’s the sort of film that I actively admire even if I end up speaking mostly negatively about it. Moment to moment, Nocturnal Animals can frustrate or intoxicate, blending components of lurid pulp and melodrama that (barely) function in their perpetual tonal conflict. It’s vapid and trashy and yet so bewildering and crafted with such élan that it’s (almost) respectable.
Centered on the anhedonia of Susan (Amy Adams), Nocturnal Animals finds the depressed housewife and art curator insipidly attempting to uncover meaning in all the wrong places. She knows that her second husband (Armie Hammer) is cheating on her and finally accepts the fact during a vacuous dinner party that strips its members of the elite class of even a modicum of discreet charm. One of the party guests goes so far as to claim that “Our world is a lot less painful than the real world”, expressing the sort of two-cent pulp wisdom that spans the picture’s glossy veneer. With Susan’s husband canoodling out of town and she being left alone in her icy fortress, she settles with the manuscript of her ex-husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) unpublished novel, the titular Nocturnal Animals.
What follows is a cross-cutting narrative, a story-within-a-story, that details Susan reading the manuscript and the realization of the text itself, centered on the ineffectual Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) in search for his kidnapped wife and daughter. This portion of the film’s narrative is its most rewarding, as Ford carefully stages the initial kidnapping scene, whereby a triad of deplorable goons led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) function in sharp contrast to Tony’s gentle southern candor. It’s basically a riff on Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey Beaumont and Frank Booth, but it works exceedingly well.
Ford introduces another element, whereby Susan’s reading of the text conjures memories of Edward, marked by how she dismissed their relationship for his perceived financial impotence and lack of ambition. It cuts straight to the marrow, as I’d imagine it would for any quote unquote struggling artist, but Ford’s insistence on theatricality upends any convincing reading of the film as a measured study of human behavior. There’s nothing especially natural about what’s going on here, whether it be the distracting and egregious cross-cutting that goes on between Susan and Tony’s narrative: a shocking moment in Tony’s story will sharply cut to Susan, as she gasps in shock over what she’s reading, or a sequence that involves Tony showering will cut to Susan, too, showering. It’s all so distractingly obvious.
But naturalism isn’t exactly what Ford aims for, and thankfully it’s Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes, a sheriff working with Tony on finding his wife and daughter’s kidnappers, that’s most actively aware of the lucid dream-logic that defines Nocturnal Animals. Prone to coughing fits in between dispensing bizarre nuggets of existential wisdom (he introduces himself as the man that “looks into things around here”), he’s the embodiment of the picture’s half-measured pulp and melodrama. At one moment he confesses to Tony of his terminal diagnosis, followed by an intensely guttural hawking fit, only to nonchalantly proceed with his plan to carry out a murder. Some of the film’s smaller performers are self-aware enough to acknowledge the inherent silliness of Nocturnal Animals (most notably are Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, and Jena Malone in one-scene moments that steal the picture briefly), though these moments are fleeting in what’s ultimately an exercise in the vapid. Yet I can’t help but expect my memory of Nocturnal Animals to be more forgiving, highlighting its ludicrousness as virtue. And I suppose that bit of wisdom is the one that Ford hopes to impart.