At first, Nocturnal Animals feels like a riff on movie thrillers: It’s set in Los Angeles, where Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, the owner of a hip (and bankrupt) L.A. art gallery, and the opening sequence features various, nude, obese middle-aged and elderly women, dancing and flaunting their jiggly bodies with audacious confidence: Edith Massey on the outside and Marilyn Monroe on the inside. (Edith Massey was the snaggletoothed, ditzy, delightfully mad older woman who appeared in many of John Waters’ early films, including Pink Flamingos and Polyester). During the show’s after-party, Susan makes conversation, spilling her guts (about her frustrated marriage) to a funky-looking artist-friend, whose big curly hair and long, flowing dress and big earrings seem pickled in the 1970s: she looks like the kind of gaudy woman who’d end up stabbing someone to death in a Dario Argento horror film. There are shades of Brian De Palma, and even whispers of that delightfully awful 1994 film Color of Night, the worst erotic thriller ever made (one that is incredibly watchable in all its glorious badness).
These impressions might spell a derivative but lewdly entertaining movie, especially in the hands of writer-director Tom Ford, who first worked as a production designer and whose eye for beauty is so keen in the not-entirely-successful but gorgeous 2009 film A Single Man. But Nocturnal Animals makes a number of disappointing structural blunders. Much of the film dramatizes the novel Susan is reading, a manuscript she receives from her ex-husband, Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Susan’s marriage ended badly, because she cheated on Edward (with her current husband, played by Armie Hammer), and the movie emits a grim energy, as though this novel, which is violent and disturbing and clearly borrows from Edward’s past with Susan, is some kind of revenge fantasy. (He even dedicated it to her.)
The novel and its dramatization are nasty and unappealing to Susan, and to us. The story involves a family being accosted by three psychopaths in an isolated part of Texas in the dead of night. The husband, Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), is left for dead, his wife and daughter are raped and murdered, and the killers vanish without a trace, until a dogged, lung cancer-afflicted investigator (Michael Shannon), helps Tony track them down.
Because she has nothing to do but read a book, Susan's only active participation in the story must occur in flashbacks, where we see Susan and Edward, once childhood friends, falling in love, against the will of Susan’s Southern-belle mama, played by Laura Linney, with her hair all poofed up and a delightful Blanche Devereaux-esque accent that I could listen to for days. (Tom Ford clearly has an affinity for brassy, bossy women, yet Linney’s character gets minimal screen time, and Susan Morrow is practically a blank.) Mama didn’t approve of Edward because he was poor and sensitive, but Susan married him anyway, and now, everything her mother said would happen has happened: “The things you love about him now are the things you will hate about him in a few years,” she says softly, her threatening prophecy steeped in matronly tenderness.
When a movie makes its main character passive, it better have a darn good reason. Jimmy Stewart, confined to a wheelchair in Rear Window, turns into a neighborhood snoop, out of boredom, and when he witnesses a murder, enlists his girlfriend Grace Kelly and his physical therapist Thelma Ritter to help him prove it. Thus, Alfred Hitchcock made Stewart’s character active by proxy. But Nocturnal Animals doesn’t know what to do with Amy Adams’ character. There’s nothing compelling about Susan, which makes her passiveness all the more dull. Thus, for Susan, everything hinges on the narrative revealed to us in flashbacks, but those aren’t compelling either. She essentially becomes unhappy with her current husband, and ditches him for another one.
And so Nocturnal Animals alternates between blandness and nastiness. Laura Linney’s performance, as well as the performances of Shannon and of Aaron-Taylor Johnson (as one of the killers), give the film some vitality, but it’s not enough to save the film from its own bad plot. The final scene, when Susan goes to meet Edward for dinner and he stands her up, should be an emotionally powerful moment. But Susan hasn’t been enough of a cold bitch to warrant our hate, and she’s not sympathetic enough for us to care about her. Moreover, Susan’s judgment has really gone downhill: She criticized Edward’s writing when they were together, but now she raves about this crappy novel in an email she sends him. Then again, she agreed to meet with Edward for drinks in the first place, another sign that her judgment is not to be trusted. Anyone who dedicates a novel like this to you, should be avoided at all costs.