Nocturnal AnimalsReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/17/16 12:18:54
Say what you will about “Nocturnal Animals”—it may be a very bad movie but as such things go, it is an extraordinarily good-looking bad movie with every single scene, whether set in the antiseptic art world of Los Angeles or a dusty West Texas backwater, resembling a fashion spread brought at least technically to life. As the film marks the second directorial effort from fashion designer Tom Ford, the aesthetic hardly comes as a surprise but the visual pleasures hardly begin to compensate for the inescapable fact that the movie as a whole is a leaden and pretentious trainwreck of a creation that is equal parts boring and bewildering.Susan (Amy Adams) is an L.A. gallery owner who is disenchanted with her job trying to hype demonstrably crappy art as genius, running out an unhappy second marriage with her largely absent and constantly unfaithful husband (Armie Hammer) and suffering from all the usual signs of contemporary ennui—mostly sleeplessness and severely unflattering hairdos. Her personal angst is so pronounced that she cannot even open a mysterious package she received in the mail without giving herself a symbolic paper cut in the process. The package turns out to be the manuscript for a new book from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal, that he claims in a note was inspired in part by her. Since she hasn’t seen Edward since leaving him for good nineteen years earlier under circumstances that could be described as angsty, this piques her interest and she tucks herself in to read the book. Based on what we see, this is an activity that is approximately as common and comfortable for her as exploratory brain surgery might be for you or i.
In the book, which we also see dramatized, a well-to-do family sets off on a vacation but their decision to drive all night through the Texas panhandle proves to be ill-advised when they are forced off the road by a car filled with drooling hicks straight out of a Rob Zombie film who proceed to beat and abandon the husband (Gyllenhaal again) in the middle of nowhere while driving off with his wife and daughter to what proves to be a grisly fate. The husband manages to survive and over the course of the next year, he, thanks to the help of a local lawman (Michael Shannon) with nothing left to lose, is able to track down the lowlifes responsible for destroying his life and exacting justice on them. Frankly, based on the evidence of what we see, Edward’s book comes across as a dreadful exercise in faux-pulp fiction—imagine a hybrid of “Manos: The Hands of Fate” and a lesser “Death Wish” movie penned by someone trying (and largely failing) to be the next Cormac McCarthy—but it apparently shakes Susan to her very core, to the point where she literally drops it after every scary part and rushes off to take a cleansing bath. Reading it also inspires her to flash back on her own relationship with Edward and how it went wrong and to speculate whether the harsh revenge tale he has penned suggests that he wants to somehow get back at her literally as well as artistically.
This may all sound confusing and achingly pretentious in the retelling, but that is nothing compared to the excruciating experience of seeing it unfold before your eyes. Ford himself wrote this adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan” but never manages to display any coherent notion of what it is that he is trying to say with it. The film juggles three different plot threads with the most artful juxtapositions imaginable but never gives us any indication of how we should feel about them at any point. Oh, it tries to pull an array of emotions from viewers at every turn, ranging from sadness and empathy towards Susan and the well-appointed prison she has landed herself in through a lifetime of bad decisions to horror and anger as the guy in the story tracks down his assailants to cynical laughter at the pretensions of the art world and those who populate it. However, Ford never seems to have any feelings himself regarding these attitudes and he handles them all with the kind of icy remove that makes the film feel as if it were untouched by human hands. After a while, most viewers may find themselves as devoid of feeling towards the film as Ford seems to be with the ruder ones breaking out into occasional laughter at some of the more egregiously awful and pretentious moments.
Ford’s previous film, “A Single Man,” also suffered from a certain pretension as well but was saved by the magnificent and heartfelt Oscar-winning central performance from Colin Firth that helped to keep it anchored and give it a genuine pulse. Because of his success working with Firth, Ford was no doubt able to get his pick of actors for “Nocturnal Animals” but pretty much lets the lot of them down. For example, I love Amy Adams as much as everyone else but if there is an actress out there who is less constitutionally suited to play a jaded, cynical and emotionally frozen art gallery owner, it is her. She tries her best and there is nothing technically wrong with her performance but she just never convinces in the role. Likewise, Gyllenhaal puts in an effort as well doing double duty as Edward and the main character in his own book but fails to make much of an impact in either role while Taylor-Johnson, as his literary tormentor, is actively awful in a role consisting of one white-trash cliche after another. There are a number of familiar faces in small roles, including Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough, Jena Malone and Laura Linney, but aside from the latter, who pops up in one memorable flashback as Adams’ snobbish mother, they all seem like they have turned up for an elaborate photo shoot instead of doing any acting. The only performance that really works—indeed, the only thing at all in the film that works—is Michael Shannon’s cheerfully gonzo and thrillingly alive performance as the renegade cop at the heart of Edward’s novel that helps to at least temporarily connect with viewers as long as he is on the screen.Other than Shannon, “Nocturnal Animals” is a dreadful film—the kind that so embraces all of the cliches of pretentious art house filmmaking style that it almost feels like a straight-faced parody of such things at certain points. Yes, it is an ambitious project but ambition alone means very little if one doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. There is a good film to be made of the raw material on display here—a haunting meditation on grief, loss and the ways that fact and fiction can intertwine in unique ways in the minds of both the storyteller and the person being told the story. Sadly, “Nocturnal Animals” is not that film. It sure looks pretty, though, for what that is worth.
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