As much as we may pretend that we would better, being a director is a tough job. Even the worst director in the world know far more about us about making movies, so it is particularly infuriating when someone is able to do it well alongside being great something else. So when Tom Ford, the fashion designer who can sell suits for the average annual wage of normal folk, decided to be a director, it was rather stunning when he became a director and first film A Single Man was actually rather good. So can he prove that wasn’t a one off with his follow up Nocturnal Animals?
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams, Arrival) is an art gallery owner that receives the manuscript for a book from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko). The dark thriller starts to disturb Susan as she believes it means more than what it first seems.
So basically, we’ve got three stories in Nocturnal Animals. First is the one I’ve described above, Susan reading the book and being incredibly disturbed by the dark material in it. Then there are flashbacks which show Susan getting together with Edward, falling in love and the break up which is why they are now separate. Then there is the actual contents of the book itself, which make up the bulk of the movie. This is a rather violent thriller, where Tony Hastings’ (Also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) wife and daughter are kidnapped, then raped and then killed by a gang of hicks. He then works with the local detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, Man of Steel) to try and bring them to justice. This story is obviously remarkably different from the other two, if only because you trade a swish New York setting for a harsh Texas desert.
The first issue you get is that one of the stories is far more interesting than the others and yes, it is the thriller. After all, Susan being disturbed by the book is exactly that, Susan being disturbed by the book. She reads it, we flash to the thriller, and we return twenty minutes later and she’s crying. She then talks about the book, so it’s rather like being at a miserable book club. So like being at a book club. Then the other story is just a relationship starting and then ending, with lots of bickering in between. Not just between Susan and Edward, but Susan’s mother Anne (Laura Linney, The Truman Show) constantly saying Edward is too lower class to marry her. That’s thrilling stuff right?
So yes, it is no surprise that the telling of the book is the most interesting part, mainly because it has things going on. Nocturnal Animals has a brilliant performance from Michael Shannon, who seems like he could play a grizzled country detective in his sleep, as well as having an emotionally tough scene to begin with which really makes you hate those hicks and wants them to be caught. It also has a thrilling ending, if a few clichés. If this film was simply an adaptation of Edward Sheffield’s book, it would be a very good film indeed. Unfortunately, that’s just one part.
This feels like what would be an ideal film student’s film, full of very try hard symbolism. The film has a desperation to be analysed, to be watched by scholars who will then write books about how it represents society, relationships and probably also feminism because Laura Mulvey is always an easy one to quote. But that’s exactly the problem, it doesn’t want to be seen as a film but an art piece. That’s why the movie begins with lots of naked obese women dancing. Not because it’s anything to do with the film, but because someone somewhere could write a 5,000 thesis about how it represents the greed of society. It even has the vague ending which Ford himself says is up to us to decide what it means, so that’s a pretty frank admission that he doesn’t know, he just wants to be scholar bait. It makes for a rather irritating film.
But let me not shoot Ford down here because with a firmer hand from the top, there is plenty of potential here. I’ve already mentioned the great performance from Shannon, but he does provoke similarly good ones from the rest of the one. The only one I’m not a fan of is Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) who basically does a rapey hick, and some how won a Golden Globe for it. He also great at picking shots because for all my problems with this movie, it is one beautiful thing. Nocturnal Animals is a film you could argue every shot is an art piece, which is ironic how much I’ve criticised it for trying to be an art piece.
Every so often you get a film trying to hard to be the next classic in the vein of the Stanley Kubrick movies and them just being offputting because they are nowhere near that. This wants to be a disturbing revenge thriller, but in the end it’s a decent thriller which is wrapped up in a lot of pretentiousness. I can’t fault a film for trying, it’s better than one that gives up before it’s even begun, and there’s certainly plenty of good scenes. But it’s just a film that will irritate you so much because of it’s over eagerness to be important. Basically, Nocturnal Animals wants to impress but falls short.