This is the second film from fashion designer Tom Ford, after his Christopher Isherwood adaptation A Single Man, which I pretty much hated, although it was made with some skill. This one sounded a little more gripping, and I was willing to agree that Ford may have matured and learned a bit in the interim. He has, but maybe not enough, and maybe his aesthetic is a little too style-as-much-as-substance for me, or maybe somewhere along the line he lost the distinction, or maybe he’s saying the distinction doesn’t matter. But the point is the movie is interesting but not great, not boring but not pleasant, although it does leave one with a little mystery to puzzle out… and the unfortunate feeling that the pieces that don’t fit together don’t out of simple carelessness, not careful ambiguity.
The deal is that Amy Adams [not quite right] as Susan is a rich, bored gallery owner who feels nothing for her job, lives in an antiseptic modern house, and has a hunky husband who is cheating on her. Her ex, Edward, sends her a novel called “Nocturnal Animals,” dedicated to her [he used to say she was a nocturnal animal], and she gets absorbed in reading it, imagining him as the protagonist. The movie then alternates between her current life, her past with Edward, and her imagining of the novel, in which a man and his wife are menaced by rednecks in Texas, and end up on a long, violent, grim crime fantasy.
I have my own theory about the movie, which I’m fairly convinced is right, which I’ll lay out in the spoiler discussion. As it is… it has very good performances. Adams is fine, Gyllenhaal is quite good, but Michael Shannon is better and more convincing than I’ve ever seen him—and you must admit he’s already quite good. Aaron Taylor-Johnson shows unexpected depth and conviction as a psycho, and Laura Linney pretty much lays waste to the entire movie with just one scene. As the movie goes along you see some connections, but nothing is really clear by the end [and a cursory survey of reviews reveals that most critics are baffled], and what you have is a slightly enervating movie with unlikable characters acting in ways you don’t understand, a lot of ugly violence and tension, and not much of an answer by the end.
Still, interesting enough and certainly not stupid, and will give you more to think about than… I don’t know, you name something. Ford has certainly come a long way, although one gets the sense that you wish he was MORE convinced that style was substance, or didn’t have such a fashion-influenced view of the glory of male violence and suffering. I was wishing the movie would break out and go FULL-ON image crazy—just make it really gorgeous and artificial, like we wanted from The Neon Demon—but it doesn’t. It’s a little bit aiming for respectability and that may be precisely its problem. Plus the mystery is a little banal.