Nocturnal Animals is a slick, good-looking, well-performed movie that intrigues, but adds up to less than the sum of its parts.
Nocturnal Animals opens with obese, near-nude women gyrating on a stage. They are crudely made up as drum majorettes (marching girls = the closest Australian equivalent). The screen is filled with folds of flesh heaving, wobbling and jiggling, and the sequence seems interminable. You wonder what’s going on.
Nothing much, actually. Turns out to be a type of performance art, part of an exhibition by gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) – and that’s about it, as far as I could discern. Perplexing. There has to be more to this seemingly gratuitously strange and grotesque opening, especially given the time devoted to it and the emphasis that implies, but director Tom Ford’s purpose is not clear.
Indeed, that criticism might be applied to the film as a whole. That is, it’s intriguing and visually striking (and, it has to be said, beautifully shot, with scene composition an obvious strength of Ford’s, if not an obsession), but you’re left with the sense that something has been lost in translation. To do with the film being an adaptation from a novel, perhaps? I haven’t read the source text, so this is mere conjecture.
The story-within-a-story narrative is one of the problems. Susan is the central character of the enclosing story, which builds a composite picture in flashback of her relationship with her ex, Tony (Jake Gylenhall), an aspiring novelist and romantic she left for the security of a financially comfortable life. The impetus for her reminiscing on this earlier relationship with Tony is his sending her a manuscript of his about-to-be-published novel, delivered on the eve of a weekend alone in her luxe modernist apartment (her philandering hubby having departed on one of his regular “business” trips).
As Susan immerses herself in the novel – a gory noir thriller set in the wilds of Texas about the abduction of a man’s wife and daughter and his quest for revenge – it is played out on screen (the story within the story). The title, Nocturnal Animals, refers to some psycho crim characters within its pages, but tellingly, was also a term of endearment of the author’s for Susan deriving from her insomnia. This is not the only aspect of the novel that resonates with personal meaning for her. She finds herself imagining Tony as the lead character, and begins to interpret the novel as an threatening act of vengeance directed at her. It is not quite clear why she should read it this way, although we learn that she has reason for guilt as far as Tony is concerned.
When Tony messages her suggesting they meet for dinner, it is clear from her response that she still cares for him. Indeed, with her marriage and career on auto-pilot and her life having become very staid and establishment for all its material comforts, Tony’s re-emergence is perfectly timed. But to what end? That is for Tony to know, and Susan to discover.
Unfortunately, the dramatization of the novel is far more interesting than Susan’s past relationship with Tony, and the contrast between her younger self when they were together and the person she has since become. In fact, the film might have worked better by dispensing altogether with the story outside the novel.
Director Tom Ford’s design touches are used to sometimes startling effect, especially in the thriller dramatization. For example, a murder scene of two corpses arranged on sofas has the sense of an art installation about it. It could have been straight out of one of Susan’s exhibitions. In the context of the novel enactment, the scene is memorable and jolting for its eery, surreal quality, and its confounding aesthetics so at odds with the preceding brutality and savagery.
However, the visuals swamp rather than heighten the drama in the world outside the novel, and an excellent performance from Amy Adams does not compensate for that. If as much work had gone into fleshing out the psychology of the Susan and Tony characters as styling the film, the story-without and story-within might have fed into each other more convincingly.
All in all, a slick, good-looking movie that adds up to less than the sum of its parts – which goes some way towards accounting for the collective “huh?” that issued from the preview audience at the end of the screening I attended.
Nocturnal Animals features: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Director: Tom Ford
Writer: Tom Ford (based on Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan)
Australian release date: in cinemas from 10 Nov 2016
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