Nocturnal Animals may be the most on fleek movie of the year. Tom Ford knows how to dress up his stars. Characters who are only in one scene, like Andrea Riseborough, get to model Ford Fleek, but the screenplay is not on fleek.
Susan (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield dedicated to her and requesting she read it. The book tells the story of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose family gets driven off the road and attacked on a late night road trip. The story has Susan reflecting on her relationship with Edward (also Gyllenhaal).
The opening of the book’s story is scary. Tony tries to pass some dangerous drivers on the road, and that only incites them further. Now he’s engaged in dangerous road games with dangerous people, and it only gets worse when they pull over, and no one else is around, and there’s no cell phone signal.
This is why I always say don’t try to pass dangerous drivers. The reason they are driving dangerously is because they are dangerous people. If Doctor Strange teaches people not to text and drive, maybe Nocturnal Animals can teach people to avoid dangerous people on the road.Let them go endanger themselves, not you.
But the Hastings could have just as easily been run off the road unprovoked (in fact, why wasn’t that the simplified story?) and there is tense drama in that situation. Reason won’t work when the bad guys are posing and threatening them. No matter what Tony, his wife (Isla Fischer) or daughter (Ellie Bamber) say, it’s going to be the wrong thing, and the bad guys will continue to threaten them. We all think about what we might say to try to escape. The truth is they’ll turn anything around.
This story gets very dark and matter of fact about violence. The story of Susan coming to terms with her life and reminiscing about her relationship with Edward is a mix of stereotypical midlife crisis and random art film nonsense. It’s like if The Princess Bride was a fashionista fever dream interrupted by a grindhouse movie instead of a loving grandfather reading an adventure story to his grandson.
Susan is stressed about a gallery opening that we see at the beginning of the film, a series of overweight women dancing around naked with sparklers in slow motion, or some lying face down on white sheets. It’s art, man. Her stark workplace is full of white walls, so Adams’ red hair stands out. And then Tom Ford does a jump scare and has a random plastic surgery woman in a business meeting.
I normally don’t comment on beauty in movies. I want to celebrate beauty, but I’m sensitive to the potential for objectifying actors. Clearly, Nocturnal Animals is making a point of the stars’ appearances. The makeup in the present day scenes is intense but shaping and striking.
Of course, I loved Adams most when she was in bed bare faced reading with glasses, but I can appreciate the appearance Ford has her put on in the office and the gallery. It also works that the makeup in the Edward and Susan flashbacks is softer and makes them both look younger, more baby-faced even though they’re post grad.
There’s a bit more to the story in the book that I won’t spoil, and I can appreciate trying out random experimental flourishes, but it seems like it’s all a cover for how simple and petty the central story ends up being. You can judge Nocturnal Animals by its cover, and you’d be right.