Film of the week: Nocturnal Animals

Michael Shannon lends a veneer of gothic wit to Tom Ford’s otherwise all too glassy looking-glass thriller.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2016.

Adam Nayman
Updated:

The best moment in Nocturnal Animals occurs when New York gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) accidentally cracks an underling’s smartphone screen and is told not to worry about it: an upgraded version is coming out next week. It’s a good gag on modern cycles of commodification and disposability, and it gives Tom Ford’s second outing as a film director after 2009’s stiff, mannered – and also acclaimed and Oscar-nominated – A Single Man a little frisson of contemporary resonance. It’s also a hint that Ford may have a sense of humour, a little of which can go a long way in making a monogrammed genre piece like Nocturnal Animals more enjoyable than the sum of its mostly self-serious parts.

As debuts by famous international fashionistas turned Venice-attending film directors go, A Single Man was, if not hugely promising, then at least willing to court contentiousness by making alterations to a beloved source text. Its half-reverent, half-revisionist treatment of Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel showed an artist trying to actively think his way through his material instead of simply capitulating to it.

Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony & Susan is not similarly seminal stuff, but in choosing it here, Ford has actually given himself a chance to make two sophomore features in one. Following the book, Nocturnal Animals has a dual narrative structure in which two stories are crosscut for the bulk of the running time, with roughly equal screen time allotted to each.

One of these scenarios is ‘realer’ than the other. Nocturnal Animals opens on Susan, whose marriage to a philandering asshole (Armie Hammer) is stuck in a luxurious rut, and whose art-world-darling status brings scarcely more pleasure – and just maybe makes her a surrogate for her writer-director, who uses these early scenes to play up all manner of culture-vulture decadence. For instance, when we see that Susan’s new exhibition is composed entirely of projected images of super-corpulent Middle American women go-go dancing nude – Red-White-and-Blue-Velvet – it seems as though we’re being invited to laugh at both the spectacle itself and the pretensions that would create it in the first place, whether they belong to Susan or Tom Ford or, perhaps, to the sort of audience that would see a movie like Nocturnal Animals in the first place. So far, so self-reflexive – and successfully so.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

The severity of the project gets (unfortunately) clarified with the introduction of the second story, which is framed as the contents of a not-yet-published novel mailed to Susan by her ex-husband Tony, who includes a note suggesting they get back in touch. As Susan reads through the manuscript over the course of a lonely weekend, we see its story visualised as a lost-highway thriller in which a family driving through West Texas is menaced, run off the road and worse by a trio of redneck thugs. That the pater is played by Jake Gyllenhaal – whom we also see in flashbacks as Tony – suggests that the scenario has been designed to have some personal resonance for its advance reader, whose visible disturbance at each new turn of the screw is also probably meant to be a mirror of our own clammy reactions.

So: once more through the looking-glass between reality and fantasy, that jagged cinematic terrain contested over the decades by Keaton, Cocteau, Deren, Lynch and Apichatpong – none of whom should lose any sleep over Ford’s incursion on the territory. He’s offering a knock-off, not an upgrade. Nocturnal Animals is far too sober to access subconscious fears or desires, at one point resorting to a Brian De Palma-ish jump scare (we’re talking Raising Cain quality here) to keep the idea of blurred binaries alive. Ford doesn’t have the knack for true uncanniness, and Nocturnal Animals stays safely within its carefully diagrammed metafictional conceit, never risking the sort of incoherence that often makes for truly unsettling cinema. As flashbacks fill in the gaps of Tony and Susan’s relationship, Ford’s need to make sure we totally understand the connections between the dissolution of their relationship and the book-within-the-film’s tale of abduction, loss and revenge transforms the movie into a strangely academic exercise, and the ratio of skilfully acted anguish to actual elicited emotion is middling.

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

These flashbacks are easily the weakest aspect of Nocturnal Animals, and they let the actors down badly. Besides the fact that it’s hard to buy Adams and Gyllenhaal as undergrads-in-love (despite the latter’s ever-boyish features), the phoniness of their meet-cute courtship makes it harder rather than easier to invest in the feelings of their present-tense incarnations. (Adams’s glassy passivity in a part that submerges her natural energy doesn’t help matters.)

Having not read the novel, I can’t say if Ford botches or simply faithfully reproduces its apparent thesis, which is that the indecisiveness and weakness in everyday life demonstrated by artistic types doesn’t necessarily connote a dearth of character and conviction. It’s a theme that’s at once irresistible to other artistic types and also pretty much just common sense that doesn’t need to be elucidated at length, and certainly not via such carefully worked, quasi-horror-movie metaphor-mongering. That Ford needs to employ an overacting Laura Linney, as Susan’s society-viper mother, to act as a devil’s advocate just goes to show how little he trusts his viewers to intuit anything for themselves, and the presumptuousness becomes seriously gruelling.

For all its problems with tone (monotonous) and theme (obvious), Nocturnal Animals is ‘well made’, in that Ford has assembled a very talented group of technical collaborators. Joan Sobel, who cut her teeth in the 1990s working with Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, contributes some superbly timed and hard-edged editing. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, surely thrilled to not be constrained by post-production special-effects considerations as in The Avengers (2012), perfumes the images just so, and does a credible Roger Deakins impression in the pitch-black/headlamp-glare desert-nighttime sequences. And the film has an ace up its silk sleeve in the form of Michael Shannon, who appears in the thriller story as a small-town cop investigating the roadside attack.

Though clearly one of the great American actors of his generation, Shannon is often hard to take in his featured roles – such as his Oscar-nominated turn as a holy fool in 2008’s Revolutionary Road – because (a bit like Christian Bale) he so gamely commits to parts that give him too much rope. Here, cast as the same sort of dusty archetype that Tommy Lee Jones knocked out of the park in No Country for Old Men (2007), he’s been given just enough to play with, so that his grim-reaper stare and expertly calibrated physicality produce pure pleasure.

Lumbering through crime scenes and interrogation chambers like a laconic giant, towering over Gyllenhaal – the Stetson adds at least two inches – Shannon crafts an appealingly ambivalent figure: as the detective becomes more invested in the violent, tragic case that’s careered into his jurisdiction, his humanity simultaneously deepens and recedes. The actor’s line readings are just curt and funny enough that the predictably grim proposition his character poses to the distraught husband and father in his care acquires a wry, semi-satirical dimension. And because he gets more to do as the movie goes along, he gives an impression that things are still entertaining, which then vanishes at around the same time he does. In a film that closes on a note of supposedly devastating absence, it’s really only Shannon who’s missed in the end. 

 

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