by Michael Henley
What is Nocturnal Animals about? I ask this not as a rhetorical device to open up a review (although it worked), but as a sincere question. I saw it more than a week ago and I’m still puzzling it over. Not because there’s so much to chew over but because there’s–to me, anyway–so little. Here is a beautifully made, exceptionally well-directed and exquisitely-acted motion picture that just goes…nowhere. It didn’t take me anywhere, at least. It exudes masterful confidence from director Tom Ford. It has the knife’s-edge precision and tautness that characterizes a great thriller. It insists upon a weight and presence and pensiveness to its own enterprise–clearly, it has something on its mind. From scene to scene it is highly watchable and even sometimes compelling. It does precisely what it wants to do. At the end of the day, I’m just not sure what it does.
The movie, in form, is a meditation on the transformative and destructive powers of art. I think. Maybe. It opens in a version of Los Angeles that is sterile and joyless (I mean, moreso). At the center of an affluent but soulless existence is Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner—successful financially at least. But the art has become exploitative and tacky. She herself has been pounded by years of privilege and boredom into a tapioca version of herself. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is drifting callously into an affair and makes pathetic attempts to hide it. Her friends, played by Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, are pretty much twits. We see her in flashbacks in happier, warmer times, showing that killer Amy Adams smile, when she was with Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal at his most disarmingly bashful).
But that was then. Now she is distant and troubled. Her thoughts drift to the reclusive Edward, now her ex, who once wanted to be a writer, and she pushed him so hard to stretch himself that she pushed him away angrily. One day she gets a package from him–a manuscript. “For Susan,” it begins, politely, before dipping into a pulpy, blood-soaked revenge yarn. What does this mean? As she reads, the film cuts to the movie that plays in her head, as the hero of Edward’s novel, Tony (played also by Gyllenhaal), a Texas family man, has a run in on a desolate stretch of road with a bunch of yahoos (led by a scruffy, loathsome Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The tense altercation that follows, as the lowlifes toy with Gyllenhaal’s wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) leads to some deeply tragic developments.
The book arguably isn’t very good. The movie has Adams’ character pretend that it is, but I’m uncertain. It opens with a horrific setup—a well-orchestrated bit of suspense from Ford. It’s also an extended beat with a climax so horrific and ugly that the movie, I would suggest, needs to work hard in order to earn and redeem. It doesn’t, moving at a sluggish pace with thin characters swimming through neo-noir clichés. “It’s beautifully written,” Susan writes in an email after about sampling about one hundred pages, which is a really weird thing to say about a novel as pitiless and empty as the one he has written. Maybe the actual prose (which we never see) is just really, really strong. As filmed, it’s a relentless collection of heartless punishment that feels like it was pulled from fan fiction inspired by Cormac McCarthy.
Maybe that’s the point. But the novel plot doesn’t really seem to add much at all to the narrative, despite being the juicier plot of the two and getting a lot of screen time. It provides context for what Adams is reading, and it helps underline some of her own dissatisfactions when we cut away to see her drift aimlessly through her own environs. And, on some buried level, it perhaps provides some insights into the psychology of Edward and how he has autopsied his fraught relationship with Susan.
But how much of that can we truly determine, since the only times we meet Edward is via brief and shallow flashbacks to his life with Susan? He registers more as a intangible remembrance than as a full-bodied character. And Susan is so inscrutable, possessing such little self-awareness, that it’s very tough to care about them or their life together. Psychoanalyzing them from a distance, with little clues and through such an unpleasant lens, is like being asked to play tennis in the dark. The movie demands an investment that we can’t supply. It even closes with an enigmatic last shot that could mean half a dozen things, I calculated, and I have to confess that none of the options moved me very much. The movie is, at its heart, a test of the viewer’s ability to create empathy for these people. One that I regrettably failed.
As I said, the movie is extraordinarily well-made. The performances are terrific. Adams shines in such a difficult, cold and off-putting role; compare to, say, her warm and human turn in the recent Arrival (still in theaters!) to see just the latest demonstration of her range. Gyllenhaal is almost heroic in his ability to create the illusion of depth within not one but two ciphers between the two stories. Taylor-Johnson’s performance is so appropriately vile, and so free from the self-preservation that sometimes shrouds the work of lesser actors. And the supporting cast is just peppered with greatness. Maybe that’s part of the problem: they’re given little to do with mere minutes of screen time–Fisher’s role seems ultimately a waste of her talent and star power, ditto Sheen, and did I mention Laura Linney shows up for one scene? Meanwhile the score by Abel Korzeniowski gives a gorgeous sense of prickly unease, and Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is crisp and rich—these might be an odd assortment of over-privileged white people (and the lowlifes who torment them), but man do the rich houses and empty deserts and fast cars look nice.
But to what purpose? What is this movie saying? I have no idea, and trust me, I’ve thought about it. There are lines tossed around that sound like themes. Occasional flashes of something that might turn into something more. But it all stays maddenly oblique. I don’t require spoon-feeding when experiencing a challenging work. I know Tom Ford (who made the arresting A Single Man) is a smart guy, and if his movie is a failure for me, it’s only because he made something that’s smarter and more adventurous than I am. But what else can I say? The movie isn’t just cryptic in its intentions, it’s downright sadistic in how it stymies your attempts to connect with it. It’s like going to a rail station where no one can give you a straight answer on whether the trains are even running today.
Nocturnal Animals is the kind of movie that you might admire, might enjoy, might recoil from in distaste. It should be seen. It demands to be taken seriously. It’s a little miracle that something this odd and ambitious got made, even though its pretensions may not make it worth the effort to unpack. It’s not just an art movie, but an art movie, the kind of movie that’s exactly the type of thing people who say they hate that sort of thing are thinking of. And for people who say they love that sort of thing, it’s kinda sorta exactly the same situation.