Nocturnal Animals (2016)
I am going to start this review of Nocturnal Animals by discussing a Stephen King novel. Misery. In that novel, King also shows us many pages from the book being written within the book, entitled “Misery’s Return”. I can’t recall if we, as readers, get to also read that entire story or if King managed to limit himself to representative excerpts throughout. What I do recall is that King took the opportunity to have fun with a different style of writing, and you could take or leave it as you made your way through the main body of the novel.
Which brings us to Nocturnal Animals. The second film from director Tom Ford (who also adapted the source material to the screen, although without any co-writer helping him this time around) is a film that connects three main strands. There’s the here and now, featuring Amy Adams as a pained woman stuck in a bit of a stale marriage with Armie Hammer. There’s the past, in which a happier Amy Adams connects with the sweet and sensitive Jake Gyllenhaal. And then there’s the book, Nocturnal Animals, which is being read by the Amy Adams of the here and now, envisioned in her mind as a story “starring” Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Karl Glusman, and one or two others. And all three strands feel like wasted opportunities, with the biggest waste being the contents of the book that we can’t just skip over.
Let me start by making clear, first and foremost, that I get it. Nocturnal Animals has one or two main points to hammer home, and it does so. It’s just a shame that it only REALLY succeeds in being effective during the final 5-10 minutes. This is a film that uses its stellar cast to avoid being viewed as truly awful, until a final scene almost saves the whole thing.
Adams is superb, as usual, as are Gyllenhaal and Shannon. You can’t really call any scenes featuring those main players bad. Ford even manages to get a surprisingly superb performance from Taylor-Johnson, who I must admit I didn’t even recognise during his first few scenes. Nobody else does a bad job either, it’s just that they feel wasted. Hammer has only a few short scenes in the whole movie, as do Fisher, Bamber, and Glusman.
Nobody is helped much by the script, which is never sure where it wants to go. Based on the book “Tony And Susan” by Austin Wright, Ford seems to tie himself up in knots to indulge himself in a number of ways that don’t ever help serve the main narrative. From the attempting-to-be-clever-and-juxtapositional editing tricks to the smarmy lines uttered by the likes of Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough (who are both also wasted), the only real saving grace comes from who is actually delivering the material onscreen.
Although there’s nothing wrong in making a movie that leads up to an enlightening third act, Ford has created a film here that is more like a mercurial mass being drawn in four or five directions at once, right up until that vital tilt at the end pushes everything in the same direction. Despite dark content, it never actually gets as dark as it should. There are moments that feel comedic, yet don’t fit in the context of their scenes. And, a crime easy enough to forgive if the rest of the film had been worthwhile, it’s hard to keep caring about main characters who are simply involved in a novel that’s being read by the central character.
I sincerely hope that his next film sees Ford back in better form. Because this was a big step down from the quality of A Single Man.
DIRECTOR: TOM FORD
WRITER: TOM FORD, BASED ON A NOVEL BY AUSTIN WRIGHT
STARS: AMY ADAMS, JAKE GYLLENHAAL, MICHAEL SHANNON, AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON, ARMIE HAMMER, ISLA FISHER, ELLIE BAMBER, KARL GLUSMAN
RUNTIME: 117 MINS APPROX