It’s such a wildly mixed bag, I almost wasn’t certain what to make of it. It opens with the most audacious, cannot-turn-away opening montage of the year–it’s a grabber. And I’m absolutely fascinated, and enamored, with Amy Adams, ever since “Junebug” in 2005. I love her Lois Lane. She knocked me out in “The Master”. I’ll root for her to win an Oscar this year for “Arrival”, but Natalie Portman, and (ugh) Emma Stone, will provide stiff competition. She’s not wasted in “Nocturnal Animals”, but it’s certainly not her Academy Award showcase. No, “Nocturnal Animals” is trash. It’s wildly entertaining, sometimes incredibly good trash. But that’s besides the point. You’ll know a designer wrote and directed this. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
There’s a wraparound device in this plot, and both stories involve Jake Gyllenhaal. In the “real world” portion, he’s Edward Sheffield, a struggling novelist who is the husband/ex-husband (keep up, it’s non-linear) to Susan Morrow (Ms. Adams with solid, subtle work). The screenplay plays with their timeline, but Edward and Susan get married, even though she’s given parental advise not to, for fear that he’ll never be successful. Susan eventually ends up with the neglectful, deceptive Hutton (Armie Hammer), a more practical union, despite her obvious unhappiness. The “meat” of the film, aka the good stuff, is a dramatization of Susan reading Edward’s novel. In this fictional portion, Mr. Gyllenhaal is Tony, a man who has his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) kidnapped in Texas, while they are on vacation. That occurs after a late-night road rage altercation, involving a gang of local thugs, lead by the malevolent Ray (a quite good, Aaron Taylor-Johnson). A search for Tony’s family begins, with the help of the lung-cancer afflicted detective, Bobby Andes (a marvelous Michael Shannon).
Tom Ford is primarily known as a fashion designer, but this is his second stab at feature film-making. I was quite taken with 2009’s “A Single Man”, mostly for the performances of Colin Firth (BAFTA-winning, as well as Academy Award & Golden Globe-nominated) and Julianne Moore (Golden Globe-nominated). “Nocturnal Animals” is an interesting and ambitious diversion from that debut. That “fictional novel” portion is enthralling, vicious, and beautifully acted. Sure, it recalls a couple of better films with its plot thrust, but it mostly works anyway–not in small part due to Michael Shannon’s tortured, realistic performance. Mr. Gyllenhaal is very good here, also. The wrap around non-fiction portions? Whatever. It’s a big, fat lesson on support and fidelity…and not very interesting at that. And Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is so damn glossy during this, I didn’t know whether to watch it–or eat it. I’m not certain that’s a criticism. I do understand the reasoning for it. And did I mention this film was made by a designer? Well, Mr. Ford’s screenplay isn’t quite fleshed-out enough in these sections. Plus, the imagining of the novel is what you’ll want to see anyway. Adventurous guy, this Tom Ford. But still, “Nocturnal Animals” is a mixed-bag.