A Review of Nocturnal Animals, Directed by Tom Ford
Nocturnal Animals has been heralded over the past year as a masterpiece and seen Tom Ford dubbed a latter-day Hitchcock. The film is entertaining, and features some fine acting and a good script, but I found the direction lacklustre – and left the cinema unmoved and wishing I’d seen this made by a more daring pair of hands, like say Lynne Ramsay.
The film (based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan) follows Amy Adams’s successful art dealer, whose superficial LA-existence and seemingly perfect (but cheating and going broke) husband have begun to bore her, until she is shocked back into life by a novel sent by her writer ex-husband Jake Gyllenhaal. The film then intercuts between LA, Adams’s imagining of the novel and flashbacks to their relationship.
The film’s major weaknesses come in the LA book ends, which fail totally in its attempt at satire. The art world is just about the easiest thing to satirise on screen, second only to the fashion world. Ford is part of both these worlds and it is clear he unable or unwilling to turn the knife with any true bite. Instead we have the cliché of the ‘fabulous’ gay man and knowingly oblivious wife, the plastic surgery freak, over-the-top outfits – and even a Christopher Wool-esque painting shouting ‘REVENGE’ in, you guessed it, a film about revenge. It may be totally ludicrous to an outsider, but people do really live in this world, and Ford offers us no insight into it, to understand both its allure and its horror, only the sheen of one of his fashion campaigns. And while Adams is not meant to illicit our sympathy, it is impossible to feel anything at all for her.
The novel follows the tale of family man (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) whose wife and daughter are raped and murdered following a highway altercation with Ray (Aaron Tayler-Johnson) in the wild depths of West Texas. This section does have some drama, but for a murder/revenge tale not enough – and is it really possible to feel anything for a piece of fiction embedded in a piece fiction? Once again Ford’s sheen kills any true emotion: the bodies of wife and child are displayed in a manner akin to the Sophie Dahl Opium advert – not really the stuff of nightmares. Yes, you can argue this is Adams’s sanitised imagination, but I think the problem lies with Ford.
Taylor-Johnson is good in his role, but the performance is tempered by Ford’s predilection for his perfect Hollywood teeth and alabaster torso. Even a shot featuring him wiping his arse feels staged for an ad campaign. Whenever tension does build we are pulled out of it into glib visual metaphors in the LA present; shower and bath montages, a bird hitting a glass window (I can hear the sound of an Radox-esque advert voiceover in my head as I write this) and most desperate at all (and totally out of kilter with the rest of the film) a demon on the screen of a baby monitor. I must say that Michael Shannon’s jaded cop is both a fantastic role and a tremendous performance, a brilliant piece of black humour in an otherwise dour film.
The film is given a shot of life in the flashback sequences; I suppose the only set in the ‘real world’. Finally here we see and feel some warmth from our characters, and some life in Amy Adams. The tension between success and ambition is one of the fundamental dilemmas in all relationships, and I wanted these scenes to go on and on. As the meaning of the novel and Gyllenhaal’s revenge come to light, what could have been a beautiful ending is suffocated by an overblown score, and an unmissable obsession with couture and fine restaurants, that is not the character’s but the director’s.
Written by Will Summerfield and Violet Hudson, Contributors to Arteviste.com