Stephen’s Review: Nocturnal Animals

With all due respect to my lovely colleague in cinematic arms, the inimitable Dickie, it’s fair to say we don’t see eye to eye on writer/director Tom Ford’s sophomore offering Nocturnal Animals.

While Ford is certainly a debonair man with a sharp eye for classic fashion and savvy business acumen, his first feature, 2009’s A Single Man, was a stilted, bloodless adaptation of the Christopher Isherwood novel, more perfume ad than film, saved only by the impeccable work of Julianne Moore.

Here it’s down to Michael Shannon to give it his considerable all in an attempt to rescue what turns out to be an even more malformed movie, an artless commentary on empty affectation that never rises above its own risible attempt at satire. In retrospect, A Single Man seems a better film.

This time drawing on Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals opens on a gallery show featuring larger naked ladies dancing in tassels and sparklers. Amy Adams, in one of the year’s poorest performances, plays frustrated contemporary artist and gallery owner Susan Morrow. Questioning the relevance of her work and stifled in a loveless marriage to philandering, failing businessman Hutton (a thanklessly sketched role for Armie Hammer) Adams drones her way through the movie as if reading disinterestedly from a teleprompter.

This deathless monotone of unsubtly layered angst is compounded by Ford, piling on the perfume ad antics once more, having Adams breathe heavily over several scenes like a particularly irksome sex pest. The ennui is, of course, intended, but it’s applied dully with blunt force trauma.

Mooching about her *Wallpaper architectural spread of an LA mansion, something Fifty Shades of Grey and The Avengers cinematographer Seamus McGarvey seems more interested in shooting than its human inhabitants, Susan receives a package from her ex husband Edward (a phoning it in though often topless, if that tickles your fancy, Jake Gyllenhaal) just as the current one heads to New York ‘on business’.

It’s the first draft of his debut novel, in fretful incubation since their university meet cute, and now dedicated to her and her insomniac ways long after their rancorous divorce.

Captured in hokey flashback, their relationship is the weakest link, bereft of chemistry and laboured, with a usually on form Laura Linney chewing the scenery as Susan’s poisonous WASP mother, determined to abort their relationship before her daughter regrets wasting her life on a sensitive and impoverished writer, a scenario that promptly plays out as signposted.

The rest of the movie then splits into a dual narrative, one that literally sees Susan spending the night reading the book, only disturbed by a crackling log in the fire or a clichéd splat of groan-worthy symbolism as a bird breaks its neck and/or wings on the window. It’s as riveting as it sounds.

Without a skerrick of subtlety, the other strand follows the manuscript’s sub-par Taken-style Texas thriller as a redneck gang, led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and backed by Karl Glusman and Robert Aramayo, runs a family of the road.

Doubling as a clumsy psychological revenge play of sorts aimed at Susan’s abandonment, Gyllenhaal also plays the terrorised father Tony. Isla Fisher is his suspiciously Adams-alike wife Laura, with Ellie Bamber as their daughter India. Shannon is the only person of note in these interminable segues, as a nihilism-driven and witheringly sardonic detective, doing great work with inferior material, but he cannot save this burning dumpster of a film single-handedly.

There are also a couple of briefly entertaining scenes set in Susan’s gallery as Jenna Malone’s bespectacled underling, seemingly escaped from The Neon Demon, shows her boss an iPhone app that lets her monitor her baby’s nursery while unblinkingly offering that it allows them ‘together time’. When Susan promptly drops and breaks the phone, she’s told not to worry, the upgrade will be out next week.

It’s a snappy aside at vacuous capitalist waste and increasing physical disconnection that, along with the following scene, a Botox dig sure to ruffle the feathers of a few of Ford’s besties, raises a much-needed chuckle amongst all the self-importance, but the scenes are so immensely out of kilter with the rest of the film they only serve to exacerbate Ford’s perilously weak storytelling and tone-setting ability.

Particularly galling is a major final act plot point that hinges on an insidious alt-right morality. Soon after the film collapses into its staggeringly anti-climactic gotcha moment, loaded with another heinously sexist cheap shot as Susan chooses her outfit for supper and one final, flimsy filmic trope.

A pompous piece of frippery as forgettable as last season’s least memorable trend, Ford would be best served sticking to fashion, at which he’s truly gifted, with Arianne Phillips’ costume work much stronger than his directorial efforts.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★

Travesty or triumph? Make up your own mind by grabbing tickets for Nocturnal Animals here.