A nested narrative, moody imagery that vacillates between angular modernism and expansive natural environments, and a genre mashup that criss-crosses through crime and romance tropes reads on paper like a perfect mix for Tom Ford, whose lone directorial effort A Single Man from seven years ago remains one of the more sparkling debuts of the past decade. But Nocturnal Animals, the fashion icon-turned-filmmaker's sophomore flick, is a lame collection of clunky plotting and conventional practices. It's an artless parody of an artful picture, a toothless satire one moment and a recycled revenge thriller another.
The tonal balance seems to throw Ford off, but that's a forgivable obstacle and a tricky diagnosis to begin with. What's so surprising and disappointing about Nocturnal Animals is that it's so awkwardly assembled, a lumbering mess of fiction and reality that clashes with Ford's desire for dreamy, stylish imagery. Ford has world-class cinematographer Seamus McGarvey to breathe life into that imagery, but the prettiness of the chilly interiors and the warm Texan landscapes is undermined by Ford's silly, shallow direction.
The filmmaker who made A Single Man, such a lush, slick, carefully constructed look at love lost and remembered, is barely visible at all here, hidden not by the genre changes, but by the strangely heavy-handed obviousness of the doubled plot. There's nothing left to the imagination and nothing particularly insightful in all the information shared, despite the movie treading through tantalizing territory.
Modern art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams, great as always, except the victim of an overzealous makeup department that defines her depressed attitude with dark lipstick) receives a manuscript from her idealistic ex Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and consumes it voraciously. This leads us to the story-within-the-story of Tony (Gyllenhaal again, based on Susan's projecting), who embarks on a road trip with his wife (near Adams lookalike Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) only to run afoul of some nasty rednecks led by a greasy Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
At first, the casting choices here raise intriguing questions and the duality of identity angle appears to send Ford veering into Lynchian headspace, but instead of obfuscating the line between fiction and reality, Ford highlights it in bold. Even though the picture begs for a deeper exploration of how Susan sees a slightly altered version of herself in Edward's story only to find the character she relates to is a victim, the filmmaker ignores the temptation to get psychologically abstract and insists on too literal a presentation.
While the story-within-the-story dominates the running time, the ultimate focus shifts to Susan's reaction to reading the manuscript. Tracking how the reading affects her and paralleling that to how the watching affects us seems like an immersive attempt to connect the audience to the onscreen experiences, except Ford seems incapable of even peering beneath the surface.
So much time is spent on Tony's thriller tale that Susan is relegated mostly to shots of looking up from the manuscript in horror or throwing it down in fear, just a bland reminder that she is indeed reading and we are indeed viewing her interpretation. When she gets whole scenes to herself, they're either filler-ific flashbacks or comically moody moments of her being lonely in her lavish home.
At one point, Susan attends a meeting with high-brow snobs at her gallery and it's clear that Ford is poking fun at these people, but the poking is so soft that it feels pointless. Look at that funny shirt and look at her excessively puffy lips! Such embarrassing silliness, this pretentious vapidity!
It's meant to be ironic, this critique of shallow art in an arthouse movie, but Ford commits the cinematic sin that he's pretending to lambaste. Nocturnal Animals has nothing more to say than jilted lovers might jilt you back and evil-looking rednecks are probably actually evil. This is all such a waste of the cast's talent and, based on memories of A Single Man's greatness, of Ford's own abilities. He seems to have regressed as a visualist.
When he used bright, popping colours in A Single Man to contrast his lonely protagonist's grey malaise, the juxtaposition generated a beautiful emotional experience. In Nocturnal Animals, there are many more angles from which to observe such a juxtaposition, but Ford's gaze only skims over each subject.
For all of the possibilities here, Ford merely manages to achieve a stifling sense of artifice. Even that could be fitting and understandable given the story-within-the-story setup and Susan's professional world seeming so divorced from a reality we might recognize, but the movie lacks enough flair to justify such an approach. This needed to be a nasty nightmare, surging through the various narrative veins, not a straightforward breakdown endlessly emphasizing the line between fiction and reality. Ford overvalues the line when what he really needs to do is read between it.