From its opening titles, a seeming riff on a James Bond credits sequence in which naked, overweight-to-obese ladies dance in slow motion wearing nothing but majorette-style accessories while glitter flies through the air and Abel Korzeniowski‘s shamelessly romance-and-intrigue-based score swirls and swoops deliriously, Tom Ford‘s “Nocturnal Animals” is a feast for the eyes and a fun-size Mars Bar for the brain. It’s also highly enjoyable, when it’s not trying to be serious and make heavy points about the interrelation of art and life. It’s a bifurcated film, and so perhaps a bifurcated reaction is to be expected, but after so much drama, all the violent deaths, all the heavy-rimmed glasses, all the designer bathtubs, all the beautiful male forms, all that bitten-off art-world chatter, all that Michael Shannon being the greatest thing ever (again, but this time in a Stetson), Ford’s attempt to synthesize the two halves of his film into a coherent whole is what sells it all short. His bid for consequence is where the film becomes inconsequential: a longwinded, thoroughly entertaining anecdote told to account, ultimately, for one deliberately missed connection. All of that was for that?
But no real matter that it gives us little of substance to leave the theater with. Because while you’re in there, in the moment, while editor Joan Sobel is stringing together DP Seamus McGarvey‘s glossy impressions of beautiful people, and production and costume design so fetishistically exquisite you might occasionally choke on your own saliva, it’s fun that comes in two different flavors.
The first, the meta-story is of Susan (Amy Adams), a successful artist living a life of disaffected luxury with her husband Hutton, played by Armie Hammer who so glows with the accrued luminescence of generations of upper-crust white-guy entitlement that you are stunned by his physical perfection every time he’s onscreen and instantly forget he exists every time he’s not. She goes to parties that seem to have been held in Panem from “The Hunger Games” (Michael Sheen‘s lilac jacket!), and doesn’t even care that they’re going broke and she has to sell her art collection. This is how we can gauge the level of her disaffection, because we all know that having to sell your Jeff Koons Balloon Dog is the absolute worst.
Susan is a lifelong sufferer from insomnia, the sexiest and most depth-implying ailment to which the upper echelons of society are prone. So much so that her grad-school first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) called her a “nocturnal animal,” the plural form of which is the title of his new book, which is dedicated to Susan. He sends her a proof, despite their having had no contact for 19 years. Susan reads the book, and unlike Edward’s previous work that she dismissed, she finds it gripping and brilliant, and also troubling in its parallels to their shared history.
Edward’s prose styling must be pretty amazing, because otherwise it’s hard to believe that Susan, with her immaculate taste and casual ability to separate Good Art from Bad Art, would have her mind so changed by a novel of Edward’s that amounts (when visualized anyway) to a Jim Thompson-style pulp paperback. However, some of us happen to love Jim Thompson-style pulp paperbacks and surprisingly Tom Ford appears to be one of our number, because the film-within-the-film (which is actually the film Susan imagines as she reads the book) is terrific: a grimy genre b-movie elevated especially by Shannon’s barnstorming, funny, and ferocious performance. You can’t help but wish Ford had just made this film instead.
The story of the book follows Tony (played, as imagined by Susan, by Gyllenhaal), his teenaged daughter India (Ellie Bamber) and his wife (played by Isla Fisher, which if you’re following, basically makes Isla Fisher the actor Amy Adams would cast as the genre version of herself, which, well actually, bravo). Driving through a remote part of Texas at night with no cell service, the family is railroaded by three thugs in a muscle car (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Rob Aramayo — all surprisingly good at being as ugly on the inside as they are pretty on the outside). The altercation escalates and results in Tony lost in the desert searching for the family he’s not sure if he abandoned or not. Down the line he meets Lieutenant Andes (Michael Shannon), a local law-enforcement officer with a touch of the renegade, a strong sense of retributive justice, and a nasty smoking habit. There are touches here that investigate the idea of masculinity — and seriously, the last person you want to meet if you’re worried about your masculinity is Texas Michael Shannon in a cowboy hat — and Gyllenhaal is typically committed and sympathetic in the role, but mostly this segment of the film unfolds as a cracklingly effective genre thriller, from the utterly gripping terrorizing on the road, to the bloody finale.
The fiction-within-the-fiction is so good that the fiction without suffers by comparison, and also by the fact that it’s Susan and Edward’s current lives that are supposedly the “real” aspect of the film. But for most of us, Susan’s lifestyle is as rarefied and remote as any fiction, while the gritty genre trappings of the story within can’t conceal that there’s actually probably more to relate to there. The “now” of the film — which is Susan reading Edward’s book in the bath, or on one of those oceanic beds of crisp Egyptian cotton (I have no idea if the cotton is Egyptian, but that’s the fanciest cotton, right?), or gasping when some striking parallel occurs to her — can’t compete with the fiction within for our engagement.
This is despite Amy Adams delivering another great performance, almost better than the role-as-written, with its often clumsy dialogue, deserves. She is a sincere actress and it’s possible that Susan could have done with a dose of archness to bring her more into line with the world in which she moves and indeed the art she creates (the excuse for those flashy, provocative opening titles is that they are part of her latest exhibition, a series of soulless but populist agitprop installations that Susan herself refers to as “junk”). But that would have made it even harder to reconcile her with the more open, loved-up younger version of herself who appears in flashback, where Ford’s ability to signal the age of his characters through nothing more complex than lighting and make up cues is little short of miraculous — never has the aging effect of dark glossy lipstick been more judiciously deployed. It’s also where a hilariously coiffed and powdered Laura Linney plays the shit out of her one scene as Susan’s mother — this flashback strand too has its passing pleasures.
But “Nocturnal Animals,” like “A Single Man” before it, shows a Ford who wants more than merely to entertain. He wants to be deep too, to say something grand and sad and stirring about the human condition and how the things we think we grow out of might actually turn out to be the things we most need later on. Which is a pity because he’s already given us what we most need: Michael Shannon in a big hat, leaning on a car with a vast Texas sky behind him hacking up half a lung. [B]