NOCTURNAL ANIMALS * * 1 / 2
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Isla Fisher. Written for the screen and directed by Tom Ford.
Writer-director Tom Ford’s sophomore effort starts off writing a check the rest of the movie can’t possibly cash, the opening credits accompanied by a slow-motion dance of naked, morbidly obese women waving cheerleader pompoms and patriotic paraphernalia. Their heaving mounds of flesh undulate to a hypnotic soundtrack, promising a Fellini-esque vision of an America gone grotesquely to rot. Alas, it turns out this is just an installation in an LA art gallery owned by a frosty Amy Adams. The remainder of Nocturnal Animals is as visually lush as one might expect from a fashion-designer-turned-filmmaker, but nowhere near as daring as its opening.
Adams plays her second cold fish in as many weeks –it’s really not a register that suits this actress well, she’s capable of so much more– starring here as an uptight crone being brazenly cheated on by her washboard WASP of a second husband (Armie Hammer doing his Winkelvii thing) and generally lounging around in a state of luxuriant misery. Her ennui is interrupted by a package from her ex, the manuscript of a novel he’s dedicated to her. I’ve probably said in the past that I’d pay to see Amy Adams read the phone book, and here’s a movie that comes close as we watch her turning pages over a long weekend in bed.
The book is a nasty little noir, chapters of which we see visualized in scalding hot colors to contrast with Adams’ world of icy surfaces. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a meek, well-meaning dad whose wife and teenage daughter are abducted in a truly harrowing carjacking incident on a West Texas highway way out in the middle of nowhere. Aaron Taylor-Johnson –an actor so bland in his previous roles that I didn’t even recognize him here—is legitimately terrifying as Gyllenhaal’s tormentor, the kind of metrosexual redneck only Tom Ford could outfit. This sequence is so long and so terribly upsetting, I started to feel physically sick to my stomach. It’s a brutally effective piece of filmmaking.
Then Nocturnal Animals’ nesting doll structure opens up to reveal yet another storyline, this one a flashback chronicling Adams first marriage to a gentlehearted writerly type (Gyllenhaal again) and how their love affair fell victim to her cold careerism. The slowly deflating romance alternates with more lurid book excerpts during which the Gyllenhaal in the novel teams up with a gruff, terminally ill cop (a brilliantly deadpan Michael Shannon) to get some revenge, Texas style.
But the thing about nesting dolls is that they keep getting smaller, and Nocturnal Animals shrinks as it goes along. The first half of the movie is rich with intrigue and tantalizing possibilities, yet once I sussed out where it was going I kinda checked out. There’s a ton of interesting subtext here, starting with a culture clash pitting Gyllenhaal’s pulpy, Jim Thompson-esque novel against Adams’ shallow art scene. I also appreciated how his book doesn’t directly address the collapse of their marriage, instead projecting his feelings of emasculation and betrayal onto genre tropes. Gyllenhaal gives his least-mannered performance(s) in years, and what’s not to love about casting Isla Fisher as Amy Adams’ fictional doppelganger?
Still, all three storylines fizzle out in anti-climaxes, giving the last half-hour a wet firecracker feeling, and if you can’t see the final shot coming a mile away then you’ve never seen a movie. An admirable effort by all involved, Nocturnal Animals ends up being one of those films that’s more fun to talk about afterwards than it is to actually watch. Here’s hoping next time Ford will come up with an entire feature that matches the audacity of those opening credits.