“Nocturnal Animals” Suffocates Us in Its Constrictive Embrace

Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, 2016)

Until just recently, it would have been hard to imagine seeing a film that would make Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon seem like a subtle and moderate take on the conflict between art and passion. Director Tom Ford (A Single Man), however, has managed just that, creating an overdetermined, overplotted and overwrought melodrama that leaves no room for audience interpretation, every beat micromanaged within a letter of its scripted sentence. For those who enjoy the claustrophobia of an MRI machine, run to the cinema, where Ford’s miserable effort at storytelling (based on the novel Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright) awaits to enfold you in its constrictive embrace.

Amy Adams (Arrival) plays Susan, an established establisment artist whose grotesque work we meet before her. In an opening sequence that is actually quite beautiful in a Lynchian (as in David Lynch) way, Ford gives us obese women, naked and writhing to  an unheard rhythm (we hear only the strings of the soundtrack), joyfully wriggling their pounds of flesh. Sadly, this expression of freedom – which, it turns out, is a video projection that serves as backdrop to Susan’s new exhibit – is the last one we will see (or feel) in the film, for what follows is a stultifying series of scenes of ennui punctuated by deeply horrifying violence that make this film one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences of the year. Susan, it seems, has built her success on the foundation of one egregious sin, committed years ago, and now that shameful act returns to haunt her. Cue music.

Past history arrives in the form of a manuscript, written by Susan’s ex-husband Edward, entitled Nocturnal Animals. He has dedicated it to her, and the rest of the movie alternates between dramatic reenactments of the book’s plot, Susan’s reaction to it, and flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s relationship. After her rupture with Edward, Susan remarried, to Hutton (Armie Hammer, The Birth of a Nation), creating a life of opulence we glimpse in the sleek surfaces of a house in the Hollywood Hills. Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal, Demolition) moved back to his native Texas, where he has been teaching English and, apparently, wallowing in despair and hatred, all of which he pours into his repulsive novel of murder and retribution. Unluckily for us, we are treated to his unvarnished rage as we watch the plot unfold. Fortunately, the story within the story features a very fine Michael Shannon (Elvis & Nixon) as a detective helping Gyllenhaal (who plays the main character within that story, as well) track down those who have wronged him. I’ll take whatever small pleasures I can fine.

Individual elements are not without merit, but the overall whole is simultaneously repellant and ridiculous. The murderous violence – and there is plenty of it – is excessive, even if we ultimately understand the roots of Edward’s anger (at which point the obviousness of the conceit makes the entire affair even more egregious). Adams, a terrific actress, does her best, but she is as hampered by the script as are we. Gyllenhaal fares a little better – he is given more to do – but it’s really Shannon (an actor I have not always admired) who takes his part and spins it into rough treasure. If only we could isolate his scenes from the rest, we’d then have a relatively watchable thriller. Instead, we just have this mess.

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