When Night Turns Dark: Nocturnal Animals
Nocturnal Animals is a film that shows where art, to a certain extent, imitates life. Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner in Los Angeles unhappily married to her second husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), a businessman who won't make time for her, and doesn't care how she feels about that. One day, Susan receives a manuscript from her first husband, writer and professor Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He includes a note, letting her know this piece will be published. Edward also dedicates the novel to her, and thanks her for the way their days together inspired him.
The manuscript, which has the same title as this film, is a crime novel about a father named Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), and a family trip gone terribly wrong. On a dark and desolate Texas highway, Tony and his family are forced off the road by a trio of trouble seekers led by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). There, Ray and his accomplices kidnap his wife and daughter, and abandon Tony in the desert. When he finds his way to help the next morning, the police come to his aid. The incident gets assigned to Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), who gets Tony to retrace his footsteps. In this process, they discover the bodies of his wife and daughter, who were violated before they were murdered. A year later, Andes contacts Tony when the trio commit another crime less successfully. Tony returns, and discovers that while a break has been made, prosecutors hesitate to pursue charges, citing circumstantial evidence. Andes, though, devises a plan, and enlists Tony's help.
Nocturnal Animals marks the second film made by famed fashion designer Tom Ford (following 2009's A Single Man), who also adapted Austin Wright's novel Tony And Susan to the screen. While Ford shows a flair for visuals, I cared very little for almost every character in his film. The level of self-absorption grows more tedious with every passing minute. I get why Susan would become engrossed with the novel, as some parts of it relate to her life, both before and after Edward. The novel sequences of this film, however, seem inspired by ths straight-talking and hard-hitting films of Quentin Tarantino. While Susan's gallery might appeal to people who consider themselves sophisticated about art and culture, I would never want to pay a visit there, especially after seeing the live art exhibit that opens the film. I know that so many of the most critically acclaimed films have a hard time appealing to a mainstream audience, but this one fails to find much appeal beyond the visual level.
The parts that were the best involved Shannon as the cynical Andes. He knows he has solved the Hastings murders when he finally catches Ray, but realizes a conviction won't be a slam dunk. Ray has an alibi witness, and Andes has other concerns about a murder case going to trial. Andes seeks closure, and takes risks in an effort to get it. He proves a criminal should not get on his bad side, as he shows a relentlessness when an opportunity arises. Taylor-Johnson shows he's a bad guy who knows the long arm of the law only has so much of a reach in an area where cell phone reception is not readily available. Adams and Gyllenhaal do good work here, but ultimately, each has characters more concerned for themselves than anyone else. Laura Linney has a cameo as Susan's rich mother, Anne Sutton, who never liked Edward, whom she considered beneath their station. Michael Sheen, Isla Fisher, and Jena Malone all make brief appearances as acquaintances of Susan.
Nocturnal Animals, in brief, is an empty film that poses as art and entertainment. I see that others have embraced this film for the visuals and story, but I don't totally agree. The most sympathethic characters in this film are the ones who fatally run afoul of Ray. Susan and Edward have never really gotten over the disaster their marriage became, as Edward's book proves. Clearly, they have had years to come to grips with their divorce and get on with something resembling a good life. That remains an uncertainty, even after their screen story ends. They seem to continue to walk in the dark, and that is perhaps the saddest part of their separate lives.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Nocturnal Animals two stars. I'm glad I'm not one of these creatures of the night.