Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner, receives a novel manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The twisted work, a thriller involving characters not dissimilar to Susan and Edward, proves to be an added hindrance to Susan’s already strained life, a life of lavish emptiness and a philandering new husband (Armie Hammer). As she progresses through the novel, she begins an introspection into her own life that could prove to change her.
Director Tom Ford, a fashion designer by trade, brings his talents to this film, and his touch becomes clear on the mise-en-scene. Costuming, makeup, and set design early on is decadent but made gaudy (in a functional way) by a gray and blue color palette. This is directly contrasted by the world of Edward’s novel, which is warmly colored and made ugly by the underbelly of grit and seediness on the Texas interstate.
Ford’s touch as a visual director is on full display in Nocturnal Animals: in his mise-en-scene, his choice of long shots, and his exquisite graphic matches. It is an engrossing sight, at once immaculate and grotesque in its depiction of ugliness on multiple socioeconomic levels.
Nocturnal Animals is a film of juxtapositions. Reality and fiction is toyed with through the film’s frame narrative. Color palettes—drab blue inside and artificial orange outside—play with Susan’s internal and external lifestyles. The bourgeois L.A. art class and the southern lower working class clash within the multiple levels of narration. And those graphic matches raise thematic questions throughout, even though few clear answers are presented.
The film is a tour de force of acting. Adams gives an outwardly icy performance that cracks just slightly when she is alone. Gyllenhaal excels as an emasculated figure whose quiet desperation is an undercurrent that drives the frame story to an electric boiling point.
Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson round out the supporting cast with two commendable performances as well. Shannon’s gruff and grumbling lawman is, in spite of the character’s lack of screentime and depth, the highlight of the frame story.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of Nocturnal Animals is the lack of cohesion between the primary story and the frame story. The primary story takes place at a point of stagnation that keeps it from being thoroughly entertaining. The first truly interesting scene is the first scene of the frame plot, the elongated and bitterly tense standoff on the Texas interstate. Even the flashbacks feel unnecessary to a certain extent.
In short, for every tasty morsel that the film presents visually, it leaves something behind narratively. There is an emptiness to the plot that, while seemingly purposeful, gives the film an air of superficiality. We leave the film on a tonal key that feels right, but the plot seems not to have progressed to a point where that tone has all of the meaning that it intends to have.
Nocturnal Animals is a visually appealing film that is hard to look away from. It presents a double-layered narrative that, at first glance, is inherently intriguing. But the film never really dives deep enough into the characters involved to make a profound statement with the story that is weaved.
Nocturnal Animals: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)