When Tom Ford, already an iconic figure in the world of fashion, made his cinematic debut in 2009 with A Single Man, it was easy to be skeptical: The universe is rarely kind to those who excel in one field and then try to conquer another. (Just ask Michael Jordan about his baseball career.) But A Single Man was—of course—a fascinating exercise in style. Moreover, it was elevated into something greater by an extraordinary central performance by Colin Firth, who should have won an Oscar then and there instead of having to wait another year for The King’s Speech.
Nocturnal Animals shares the exceptional style of A Single Man. But it lacks a profoundly humanizing performance on a par with Firth’s. It offers, in a phrase, the art without the heart.
How appropriate, then, that the film’s protagonist, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), owns an art gallery, and one for which she has largely lost her enthusiasm. Nor is this ennui limited to her professional life. She lives in an immaculately modern L.A. mansion locked tight behind a polished metal gate. (Entering the premises is a bit like climbing into a piece of high-end kitchen equipment.) Her successful husband (Armie Hammer) is increasingly neither: his failing business serves as an excuse for the “late nights” that keep him from her bed and the “work trip” that interferes with her hoped-for beach getaway. It’s clear that Adams has achieved the life that she always wanted, and that it’s hardly a life at all.
But then Susan receives a package in the mail, a book manuscript from the lover, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), to whom she was briefly married in her early twenties. The book is dedicated to her and titled, after the nickname Edward had bestowed upon her due to her insomnia, Nocturnal Animals. Susan begins reading.
The text of the novel provides a film-within-the-film: Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) is taking a road trip with his wife and daughter that entails a late-night drive across the barren scrub of West Texas. (In a cunning bit of casting, the wife is played by Isla Fisher, who thus fulfills her manifest destiny of serving as Amy Adams’s understudy.) Their car is forced off the road by a trio of rural thugs, who abduct Tony’s wife and daughter. I will leave their fate to the imagination, though the film itself is not so kind.
Suffice to say that the remainder of the novel concerns Tony’s quest for justice and/or vengeance, a quest in which he is aided by one Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). Tony’s “fictional” story is interspersed with Susan’s “real” one—though to be fair, hers mostly consists of reading the novel, taking baths, lying awake in bed, and having flashbacks to her long ago love affair with the book’s author, Edward.
The two stories are artfully intertwined—at times a bit too artfully. When Tony bathes, in order to scrape off the dust and sweat of West Texas, Susan bathes, because—well, that what you apparently do if you’re a wealthy Los Angelean who’s lost interest in her career and her marriage.
Gradually, deeper parallels emerge. Susan wounded her ex-love Edward grievously when she left him over his writerly dreaminess and lack of ambition. (Laura Linney has a marvelous cameo in flashback as Susan’s socialite mother, warning that she would eventually do exactly this: “Just wait,” she purrs. “We all eventually turn into our mothers.”) Meanwhile Tony, Edward’s literary stand-in, suffers wounds decidedly more vivid in nature. But despite the distance between them, both of the film’s locales—gleaming, spotless Los Angeles; arid, sun-scorched Texas—remain relatively sterile and lifeless.
Gyllenhaal continues his recent run of strong performances as Edward/Tony, although his character is by nature secondary. And while Shannon is exemplary as the ever-so-shady lawman, he doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen from him before. At the center of it all, Adams remains something of a cypher. Hers was the performance that needed to break free of Ford’s immaculate frame, as Firth’s did in A Single Man, and it doesn’t quite succeed. Although she is playing a form of acute and lingering sadness, it never registers as deeply as it did in her marvelous turn in last week’s Arrival.
Nocturnal Animals is an intriguing, well-wrought film that explores penetrating questions: choice versus indecision, commitment—to art, to love, to revenge—versus cowardice. But for all its strengths it never quite breaks below the surface.