Nocturnal Animals

Reviewed By alejandroariera
Posted 11/18/16 03:00:00

"No Country for Beautiful People"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford sure loves flashbacks. For his debut film, “A Single Man” (2009) based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, he built this story about a gay college professor mourning the death of his partner in a car accident in 1960s America around them. Ford is far more ambitious in his second film “Nocturnal Animals,” based on Austin Wright’s almost forgotten novel “Tony and Susan” (1993): flashbacks are used as an additional narrative layer to what is essentially another cinematic experiment in metafiction. But whereas Colin Firth’s, Julianne Moore’s and Matthew Goode’s performances saved “A Single Man” from Ford’s penchant for stylistic excess, in “Nocturnal Animals” style reigns supreme.

The opening titles alone are a declaration of intent: a series of shots of semi-naked middle-aged obese American women dancing in slow motion, some carrying sparkles, their fat bodies undulating grotesquely. Ford soon reveals these images to be part of a video installation presented by gallery Owner Susan (Amy Adams; in the novel, Susan is a part-time English teacher, married with three kids). Unsatisfied with her work and her relationship with philandering second husband Walker (Armie Hammer), the sleep-deprived and childless Susan one day receives a package from former husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) containing the manuscript of his yet-to-be published new novel, “Nocturnal Animals.” Not only did he title the novel after the nickname he once gave Susan but also dedicates it to her, so you know there is history between these two. After much dilly-dallying, Susan puts on her Tom Ford-designed glasses in bed and cracks open the manuscript to begin reading what essentially turns into the film’s parallel storyline: a noirish, pulpish, lurid tale of revenge.

That second story, told with far more panache, involves Edward-surrogate Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal doing double duty) who, on his way to West Texas (in the novel, it’s his summer cottage in Maine) with wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), encounters trouble on the highway late at night after he bumps into a car driven by three Texan rednecks led by a nasty piece of work named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, looking like the cover boy for “Guns & Ammo”). They are run off the road by the trio who, in true “Deliverance”/”Straw Dogs” fashion, terrorize and kidnap them. Left alone in the middle of the desert, Tony manages to seek shelter at a nearby farm and calls the police. The case is assigned to retiring detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) who finds the naked dead bodies of Laura and India, handsomely bound together, on a sofa, outdoors. The investigation lasts years but as soon as the culprits are found, Tony’s masculinity is tested as Bobby invites him to mete out his own brand of justice.

Ford cuts back and forth between both stories, interrupting the far more interesting one every time Susan slams the manuscript down, takes off her glasses and goes about her daily routine. He indulges in some cheap shocks (one involving an assistant’s cracked smartphone screen) just because. But Ford can’t leave well enough alone. It is not enough for him to try to visually represent the very personal act of reading. He also has to sprinkle flashbacks that take us back to the early days of Edward’s and Susan’s relationship, her mother’s disapproval (Laura Linney in full Texas grand dame cartoon mode), the recriminations and the disappointments. We can’t wait to get back to the lurid tale given how dull, how artificial, these scenes are. And that’s thanks to Shannon’s magnetic, tough, no-nonsense performance as Andes. He breaks loose from Ford’s stylistic shackles, breathing life and pumping blood into this lifeless concoction.

Is this a meditation on the act of reading? A meditation on how we watch movies? Or a pretentious exercise in “experimental” narrative? The latter, most probably. At times, I felt like I was watching two entirely different movies even though they are connected. Is Edward’s novel his revenge on Susan who dared question his masculinity and talent oh so many years ago? Maybe, maybe not. So, Susan sees in the novel a metaphor for her failed relationship. Who cares? As an act of revenge, the novel as actually conceived isn’t quite the effective plot device Ford (and maybe even Wright) think it is.

Ford leaves many strands of his main story frustratingly unresolved. Characters appear and disappear for no good reason; they are there because, hey, wouldn’t it be cool to cast Michael Sheen and Jenna Malone? Ford unforgivably brings everything to a close with one of those open endings that is the norm in art cinema these days. Don’t expect any meaning out of that final shot of Amy Adams sitting alone in a restaurant; it’s there because, damn, she does look good in that scene, all made up with nowhere to go. A week after seeing Adams deliver a powerfully subtle performance in “Arrival,” it’s frustrating to see her underused by a director who has absolutely nothing to say about the way we perceive and consume stories. Like Hammer and the rest of the cast, she fulfills a a rigorously set-designed role. The cool, perfect colors and furnishings surrounding her have drained her energy, her spark.

After two films, Ford comes across as an unimpressive, filmmaker, even though the noir tale embedded in this tale shows that he could have potential as a genre filmmaker. Perhaps he should stick to the lurid, the gritty, the visceral and not the cold, carefully coiffed images and films he’s delivered thus far.

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