View Post

REVIEW: Nocturnal Animals

Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

How do you make your ex feel remorse for their betrayal? According to Austin Wright’s play, Tony And Susan, you write a novel that engages their curiosity about your past together, a past that you then reimagine as retribution. This is the premise for Tom Ford’s second feature film after the success of the much-praised A Single Man (2009).

In Nocturnal Animals, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams, headlining two new releases this week along with Arrival) is a commercially successful artist, and also a woman with deep regrets, an insomniac who is troubled by the shallowness of her life. She is judged harshly by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), for not following the path of the pure artist, and more for a personal betrayal in their relationship. He baits a trap by sending her his novel, Nocturnal Animals, a re-writing of their life through an incident of abduction and tragedy. Susan finds the story compelling and moving, and dares to hope that it sets the record straight between them.

The film’s structure is framed by Susan’s exhibition opening of Fellini-esque obese women performing as cheerleaders, described by Susan herself as “junk.” Her gallery is staffed by vacuous and/or Botox-filled women, with a very funny vignette by Jena Malone as the Gen Y gallery assistant who “keeps in touch” with her baby by iPhone.

Susan’s apartment, dress, and art is all style over substance. Here, Ford – a world-renowned fashion designer – has his cake and eats it too, pointing an ironic finger while populating his support cast with Tom Ford models, and framing his scenes with self-conscious design aesthetics.

If Susan’s world is a pastiche of high style and film noir, the story within a story of Edward’s novel is more Tarantino. Here, Ford gives himself license to heighten the characters into caricature, and draw out the violence and menace, centred around Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s portrayal of the sociopathic Ray Marcus. We are asked to assume that it is the revengeful Edward’s intention to play out the long scenes of chase and capture, but they lose tension through repetition and lingering.

While Adams captures the brittle Susan well, her own self-deception setting her up for Edward’s manipulation, it is Michael Shannon who is the standout performer as the cop who comes to help Tony Hastings (Edward’s alter ego in his novel). Shannon can generally be relied on to nail a role, but he doesn’t miss a comic beat here as an agent of vengeance with nothing to lose.

Gyllenhaal carries the more difficult role, though he does a consistent job of trading on an aura of boyish sincerity. His character is required to be the faultless victim of Susan’s materialism. She gives up her own creativity for materialism and becomes, in Ford’s most damning prediction through Edward’s words, like her mother, a grotesque pearl-wearing, bouffant-haired matriarch played by Laura Linney. While the caricatures and stereotypes work for the device of the novel, they seem less certain in the context of Susan’s “real” life.  Apart from the “revenge” theme which is laid on with a trowel in high camp film noir style, including a key art work comprising the word itself, there are many heightened clichés. There is the model handsome and predictably unfaithful husband, the sentimental filming of scenes where Edward is pleading for an idealistic life together, the contrivance of Susan’s betrayal scene; they are either heavy handed pointers to the fakery of “real life” or a thorough indictment on Susan’s evil.

Because in the end, the film centres around that accusation, and by implication the materialistic, shallow life Susan has chosen, the mother who sits behind her, the pariah-like women who run Susan’s gallery, and the grotesqueness of the obese women objectified in her art. These are in sharp contrast to the beautiful sculpted male bodies, notably Gyllenhaal who Ford lingers on in frames of renaissance-like beauty. With Ford, every aesthetic choice is specific and considered. Either he is simply underlining his own male hero’s goodness and his female protagonist’s evil, or he is playing with ironies about his own creative purity or otherwise, and where he places the blame and revenge.