For his 2009 debut A Single Man, fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford had his share of detractors with a film labeled as “style over substance”. While that’s an unfair complaint in my estimation considering how it hums to the rhythms of Colin Firth’s soulful performance and its moments of sharp (yes, stylized) insight, his follow-up Nocturnal Animals doesn’t meet that superficial low bar. This time, the glossy veneer can’t distract from the blank experience of the film of dual narratives: frosty art maven Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) receiving a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the grimy, violent novel itself (with Gyllenhaal playing its lead).
The two stories are tied together in clunky ways, but the separate parts themselves are vacuously rendered enough to make Animals rarely more than tedious. Flipping back and forth between Morrow’s reflections on her marriage and the subpar book she reads, the film aimlessly flirts with genre and mood without goals or singular vision – the potboiler portion feeling particularly disengaged. The film throws (or rolls, or shrugs) quite a bit at the audience without any foresight on how to make it stick.
Amongst its copious furtive glances and mean mugging – whether from its game ensemble and embodied in the film’s stylized self – is a needlessly hostile tone. The cumulative effect of the film is like a staring contest with a cranky teenager, needlessly taunting you with an almost comical performative intensity. Its two very long hours are a stale but still somehow underdone hell – what it thinks is a stylistic swing for the fences but is really just a soft lob at empty provocation.
Relegating a charged Amy Adams to a narrative devise with increasingly silly reaction shots, the titular manuscript serves as Nocturnal‘s primary thrust. But it’s Adams’s moments that keep us engaged, even though it doesn’t come close to utilizing her skills of internal projection as well as Arrival. Her stoic, icy visage and the moderately inviting visuals of her section at least serve as a sedative to the flat crime saga the film is more interested with. While it’s not inconceivable that her pretentious Morrow would continue reading such claptrap, it is absurd that it would rile her so.
Told without any of the wit or edge necessary to make the ununique story at least be enjoyable trash, the book portion is a tough sit. Not even the intelligent force of Michael Shannon as the investigating detective to the murder of Gyllenhaal’s family can save it. And Gyllenhaal delivers something close to his worst performance.
With a screenplay that’s easy to imagine as written with the First Letter of Each Word Being Capitalized For Emphasis (Adams’s emphasis on the word “junk” being one of the film’s rare treats), the film doesn’t so much rub our faces in shit as it does provide a boring guided tour of soullessness. What could be a commentary on the very vapidness that Nocturnal Animals embodies is instead just a disorganized assortment of unconnected and incomplete ideas. The finer elements, like the underserved Adams and a darkly lush score by Abel Korzeniowski, are unfortunately drowned by the film’s pedestrian observations and cruelty. Ouch.