Nocturnal Animals isn’t the worst film I’ve seen this year — that was and hopefully shall remain Dog Eat Dog — but it does have an air of self-importance that makes its lack of any meaningful content seem especially scorn worthy. Written and directed by fashion designer Tom Ford in his sophomore effort, it’s allegedly based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, though it just as easily could’ve been an adaptation of Avril Lavigne’s 2002 hit, “Sk8er Boi.” It tells the same girl-disses-boy story, costumed in overworked flashbacks and ostentatious framing devices. Shot like a high-glamour perfume ad and scored with breathless, Zales commercial string music, Nocturnal Animals takes 116 minutes to deliver the same narrative content Avril got through in 3:24, only without the moody bridge or sing-along chorus.
We first meet Susan, played by Amy Adams, at her art exhibition, which involves slow motion videos of obese naked women in drum major helmets dancing on go-go stages, with golden confetti falling dramatically around them. The opening credits, set to the videos themselves, are the most enjoyable part of the movie. But soon we’ve pulled out, to the larger scene, and to Susan, whose gallery work seems to bring her no joy. Nor does her philandering, workaholic husband, played by Armie Hammer, with whom she shares stilted, aspirational dialogue. They have a Keurig machine in their tasteful kitchen and a “usual room” at the Waldorf for closing important business deals. And yet they seem so sad! What a shame.
It’d be painfully stereotypical for a fashion designer to be fascinated by the disaffected rich, yet Susan’s life is a glamour mag cliché, snowglobe tears constantly dangling from her CG-aged cheeks. She discovers that an old flame has sent her a galley copy of his new novel, “Nocturnal Animals,” with a cryptic note and a dedication reading “FOR SUSAN.”
She’s drawn into the book, initiating Nocturnal‘s story-within-the-story sequence, starring Jake Gyllenhaal as a father and husband whose family gets hijacked by murderous rednecks during a drive through West Texas (the place helpfully identified by a big orange roadside sign that says “West Texas”). Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the head redneck and Michael Shannon the gruff sheriff assigned to the crime.
Being marginally more interesting than a rich lady staring out a window, this subplot quickly subsumes the larger narrative, such that it gets annoying to constantly be pulled out of the tense kidnapping plot to get an update on Susan’s progress with her bathtub wine. Hoo boy, look at that, she seems really conflicted about this book she’s reading.
Susan is so moved by the book that she writes her old flame an email telling him how great it is. Which is interesting, because his novel is such a hokey, basic cable-ready Deliverance plot that you almost wonder if it’s meant as a commentary on her terrible taste (poor Michael Shannon plays a great character trapped inside this meta-turd).
Susan sets up a dinner date with this ex, Edward (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal), which initiates a series of flashbacks to their relationship. For the Cliff’s Notes version of this relationship, see Sk8er Boi. The longer version is, they grew up together in Texas and reconnected in New York, where she was studying art and he was on a writing scholarship at Columbia (fun fact, in grad school they’re called fellowships). He struggles, and she decides to put aside childish things (“I think I’m too cynical to be an artist,” she says) and blah blah blah, they break up (she said see you later boy, he wasn’t good enough for her). It’s only when she reads the book that she comes to regret it.
As she tells her work friend back in the present, “He was a writer and I didn’t have faith in him. I left him for the handsome and dashing Hutton. …Do you ever feel your life has turned into something you never intended?”
If only her pretty face had seen what he was worth! Honestly, is this not just a stilted art school rewrite of Sk8er Boi? It’s hard to give it credit for any more subtext when the past, present, and fiction storylines are all equally corny.
Watching it just after the election, the most interesting part of Nocturnal Animals is that it’s almost a parody of the way urban yuppies see rural rednecks and vice-versa. As Nocturnal Animals (and “Nocturnal Animals”) depicts it, people in West Texas are all cackling, shiftless predators, driving around the desert in circles, just hoping some city folk happen by their barren shithole on the way to an artist’s colony so they can rape them. (Yes, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character’s family are actually on their way to an art colony when they get hijacked. Yes, Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character actually keeps a toilet on his front porch so he can take dumps while swilling Shiner Bock as the sunlight dances on his bare torso.) Or, they might be gruff sheriffs desperate to de-pussify the world by dispensing frontier justice. These rapists’ parents probably ruined them with all the participation ribbons, and now they think it’s okay to drink beer while poopin’! #MAGA!
Back in New York, Susan’s co-worker (Jena Malone) babysits via iPhone app, her best friend (both of them clad in ridiculous Amber-from-Clueless outfits with puffy sleeves and giant glasses) assures her that having a gay husband isn’t so bad, and Susan herself is so disaffected it seems like she might pass out. It’s funny watching Ford satirize the art world on purpose in these scenes, even as he’s doing it accidentally in the rest of the movie. Susan is estranged from her pearl-wearing iron bitch mother (Laura Linney), by the way, who disowned Susan’s gay brother and tells her to dump her sensitive lover Edward because he’s poor. (“You’re more like me than you think,” she says, which is a very original line that people often say in real life.) Susan’s mother is a Republican, you see. #ImWithHer!
That all America is bifurcated into either rural raping rednecks or insufferable urban art queers might be an interesting satire, only it doesn’t seem at all intentional. It’s just that Ford apparently only thinks in cologne ads. (Did you know abortions only take place on rainy days? “Rainy Day Abortions” is my indie band name, don’t steal it.)
Likewise, it’s possible to argue (as my editor, Keith Phipps, who liked this movie a lot more than me, has) that the silly story-within-a-story is some kind of meta commentary on the ugliness of male revenge fantasies. I like that version of the movie a lot better, but if that’s true, why does Amy Adams’ character like the ugly revenge fantasy so much? And why does Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the writer, show up in his own revenge fantasy as the least vengeful character? Without spoiling too much, I suppose you could say that Amy Adams’ character does face a kind of reckoning for underestimating the intensity of the spurned male ego, though it’s a fairly weak one.
Meanwhile, not even a hint of this read shows up in Tom Ford’s director’s statement in Nocturnal‘s press notes:
Nocturnal Animals is a cautionary tale about coming to terms with the choices that we make as we move through life and of the consequences that our decisions may have. In an increasingly disposable culture where everything including our relationships can be so easily tossed away, this is a story of loyalty, dedication and of love. It is a story of the isolation that we all feel, and of the importance of valuing the personal connections in life that sustain us.
To me that sounds like the plot of “Sk8er Boi,” dressed up with a few art school buzzwords (“in an increasingly disposable culture, at its heart it’s really a story about family, set against the backdrop of the death of the American Dream, where New York is really like another character in the film.”)
The source material, sadly, sounds much more interesting than the film it inspired. Tony & Susan sold poorly upon its initial release in 1993, was published in the UK in 2010, whereupon it spawned a critical revival, and went back into print in the US. None of which Author Austin Wright, a professor at the University of Cincinnati for 23 years, got to witness, on account of he died in 2003. Eventually his book was optioned for this film, directed by a famous fashion designer and starring a who’s who of A-list actors.
Unfortunately, knowing all that doesn’t improve the experience of watching Nocturnal Animals. Imagining it as an elaborate video for Sk8er Boi might.