Good cast is only bright spot in half-baked psych-thriller
Nocturnal Animals, the new movie from filmmaker/fashion designer Tom Ford, is a half-baked psychological puzzle that tries to mix some flashy stylistic complexities with story elements that are, at times, simply lurid and grim. It’s a kind of suspense film, but mostly along crudely cerebral lines—how will this provocative but uninvolving mess resolve itself? Will it even do that?
A good cast—Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and more—helps to keep the thing afloat, but the first half of this movie is a nasty ordeal that had me thinking about skipping the second half. The mid-movie arrival of a character played by Michael Shannon and a flickering of professional curiosity were barely enough to keep me in my seat.
The prerelease plot synopsis tells us the film is about a woman (Adams) who reads a novel by her ex-husband (Gyllenhaal) and finds herself swept into nightmarish experiences of a decidedly personal sort. That’s true enough, but only up to a point. What’s left out is that (1) most of the film’s action is a visualization of the story that the Adams character finds in the ex-husband’s novel and (2) said visualization seems to represent the woman’s subjective, and ostensibly autobiographical, interpretation of what she’s reading.
The story within the story, the narrative of that novel, comes off as a species of pulp fiction that flirts occasionally with something bordering on psycho-killer porn. In it, a husband, wife and daughter have an increasingly deranged nighttime confrontation with a trio of psychopathic rowdies on a lonely Texas highway. (In the film’s visualization, the beleaguered husband is played by Gyllenhaal, and two Adams look-alikes, Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber, play his wife and teenage daughter.)
As the Adams character’s reading proceeds, we also get flashback-style glimpses of her relationship with Gyllenhaal’s novelist and with a handsome young financier (Armie Hammer) who matches up more closely with the prosperous type that her elegantly domineering mother (Laura Linney) would prefer her to marry.
Gradually, we get the sense that nearly everything in the film reflects in some way on the increasingly lavish convolutions in the psyche of Susan Morrow (Adams). It is, however, disconcerting to find that while the film succeeds in building a multileveled portrait of an inscrutably disoriented character, it fails to give it anything like the moral and emotional weight that emerges in the narrative of the ex-husband’s novel.
That fictional misadventure gains considerably from the presence of a cowboy/lawman named Bobby Andes (Shannon), who steps in to sort out some of the tortured mysteries involving the kidnapped wife and daughter, while also exuding a few darknesses of his own. Susan is the character that gets to say something about human nature and “nocturnal animals,” but Shannon’s spookily paradoxical cowboy is the best and perhaps only real embodiment of such notions in this film.