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?”