The following review was originally published as part of our coverage of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
At a dinner party in the first act of Nocturnal Animals, Susan (Amy Adams) admits that she doesn’t particularly care for the art at her gallery. She hangs the art up and forgets about it, finding little to no deeper meaning or purpose in any of it. It’s a scene that’s supposed to cement the protagonist’s ennui-ridden struggles with the trappings of her unfulfilling one-percenter life, but it’s a sentiment that could just as easily be said about Tom Ford’s relationship with theme in his sophomore film, based on the novel by Tony and Susan by Austin Wright.
Stuck in a crumbling marriage and almost equally unfulfilled at work as a gallery owner, Susan is sleepwalking and sighing through life when she receives a package from her estranged ex-husband, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal). It’s a manuscript for a novel called Nocturnal Animals, one that, the attached note explains, she inspired him to write. Left alone in her sprawling mansion when her husband leaves on a “business” trip, Susan begins to read it and quickly becomes absorbed in the narrative.
Weaving together Susan’s current life, the narrative of Tony’s manuscript (in which the life of a mild-mannered teacher, also played by Gyllenhaal, falls apart when his wife and daughter are abducted during a family vacation), and flashbacks to the former couple’s shared past, Ford consistently flirts with greatness but never follows through.
The problem isn’t a simple matter of quality. The acting is almost uniformly excellent. Adams puts in an even better-than-usual performance as both a jaded middle-aged woman on the verge of a crisis and her still wide-eyed younger self. Michael Sheen and Jena Malone charm in what would have been disposable roles in less capable hands. Laura Linney destroys both audiences and her daughter’s will to live as Susan’s ice-cold, status-hungry mother. And Michael Shannon blows all of those excellent turns away by Michael Shannon-ing his way through the novel narrative as a grizzled, wry detective who befriends the beleaguered Edward.
The talent behind the camera is equally skilled. Ford’s eye remains as sharp as ever, and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey stuns in all three storylines, from the straightforward neutral tones of Susan’s past to her cold, minimalistic present, to the sun-soaked Texas exteriors of Tony’s book. But none of the thoughtfulness, care, or compassion that was so evident in Ford’s 2009 directorial debut A Single Man is evident in this follow-up feature. Much like Susan herself, it’s all very well-funded, well put-together, and agonizingly empty.
The interplay of the three plot lines is sleek, and moves along at a solid pace, but the parallels themselves aren’t nearly as profound as they present themselves to be. And the overlapping visuals are even less clever. (At one point, Ford alternates between shots of Edward and Susan taking baths at the same time. He later pulls a similar trick with showers. And another with bare bottoms.) Lofty ideas of class, thwarted ambition, the superficiality of L.A. life, the nature of love, and the meaning of art are all explicitly addressed – and maybe discussed in a pretentious conversation or two – and then just as easily dropped, as if the simple act of naming themes is enough to establish their continued relevance in the film.
It’s really not, though, and these moderately-baked concepts merely become more half-hearted fodder thrown into an undeniably stylish but insubstantial concoction that promises probing thrills and delivers little more than listless melodrama and self-satisfied satire. It might work on a meta-level, if you consider the interaction between artist and audience a fourth layer of narrative, one in which the way that Ford toys with his viewers begins to mimic the way that Tony seems to bait Susan as the plots progress, but even that would be more of a clever parlor trick than an inspired work of genius.