[Film Review] Nocturnal Animals, by Tom Ford

I’m so biased in favour of Michael Shannon, I’ll go see anything he stars in. Especially the Jeff Nichols stuff. If you haven’t seen Take Shelter or Shotgun Stories or any of the others, do it now.  Having seen Arrival twice in the last couple of weeks, I also started the year curious to see more of Amy Adams’ acting, so one viewing of the Nocturnal Animals trailer was enough to convince me to place it at the top of my list. I went to see it at the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square and I must say, London friends, that’s pretty much the only cinema you need. As usual, I’d avoided any information about the film, apart from the unavoidable trailer in the cinema and thankfully, that hadn’t gotten me very far in understanding what the film was about.

The opening images were arresting, an intriguing introduction to the first of three narrative threads. The first depicts the disintegrating emotional life of a disillusioned art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), which is precipitated by the arrival of a manuscript, written by her bitter ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). This book is the basis of the second thread, relating a violent crime committed by a monstrous man (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the subsequent search for justice, any kind of justice, by the ex-husband’s fictional alter-ego, with help from a morally-compromised and – not the subtlest of metaphors – cancerous small-town sheriff (Michael Shannon). This whole strand is I think meant to be interpreted as both a mental projection on Susan’s part – she possibly feels threatened, even guilty – and a form of exorcism for Edward, as if the violence perpetrated by and on his characters somehow assuaged his death wish. The third storyline consists in a series of flashbacks gradually uncovering details of the pair’s nascent love and the nastiness of their subsequent separation. It is suggested that he was let down in a rather brutal manner, although exactly what could have happened to cause such lingering antipathy remains unclear until late in the film.

I came out of the cinema pensive, unsure as to what it was all about, so instead of forming a proper opinion, I read some reviews to see if I felt like siding with the crowd. Problem was opinions were pretty mixed. There are many positive, even enthusiastic reviews, but some are absolutely scathing, like a film critic’s voodoo pin-needling equivalent (special mention to the Libération critic who called it a “vacuous caricature of shamelessly beaten Lynchean mirages” and some other niceties with adjectives I don’t even know how to translate – Tom Ford the “total esthete” must have grown boils all over).

Nobody denies that impeccable style is demonstrated throughout, with carefully calibrated shots where nothing is left to chance, high fashion in bourgeois L.A. settings, purring classic cars and clever lookalike casting. The actors are also generally complimented, even if sometimes only for doing their best with the poor material they were given and not getting too lost in the plot’s mirage(s). What it all means, however, is more open to interpretation. Quite a few critics thought it severely lacking in substance, not to say pretentious and emotionally shabby. In that vein, I felt that the film failed to give its characters enough depth for lack of sufficiently convincing dialogue (e.g. whether or not the book’s bad man is meant to represent the worst of his author/creator’s psyche, “killing is fun” never strikes me as sufficiently nuanced an explanation for a crime. Making that threat with a psychopathic leer does nothing much for its plausibility). Still, I had to think about the film long enough while walking home to feel more generous than that: the stylishness of the whole is impressive to the point that I am considering a second viewing, and whether or not you’ll end up liking it, it’ll be hard not to come out of Nocturnal Animals without feeling that you want to have an opinion about it.