The pedigree of Nocturnal Animals made it a movie I wanted to see. Writer/Director Tom Ford had made his mark as a fashion designer and creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before making the well-received movie A Single Man, for which Colin Firth received a Best Actor nomination. I hadn’t seen that film, but the trailer for Nocturnal Animals marketed it as film noir, a genre I truly love. It was reasonable to expect Ford would bring a wonderful sense of style to the film.
The cast, too, was a selling point. Amy Adams is one of the best actresses in film, and I’d just been mesmerized by her performance in Arrival. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent in anything he does. His performance in last year’s Nightcrawler was on par with De Niro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. Add to that a rich supporting cast that includes Isla Fisher, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Arnie Hammer, Laura Linney, and Michael Sheen.
Let me say that Ford and the cast deliver what you would expect from them. But a key point for any film is the script, and that’s where Nocturnal Animals fails. Instead of being the kind of movie that you can chew on, it’s an empty box, gilded with gold and encrusted with jewels, but with nothing on the inside.
The problem is the source novel, “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright. As one reviewer put it, Wright was “the epitome of the academic as novelist.” The book was published in 1993 and received great reviews, but its sales were spectacularly underwhelming. Wright tried a twist on thrillers to invest it with meaning and foreshadowing between the real world and the made-up world. He aimed for meaningful; he hit pretentious and vapid. Ford has embellished the externals of the story in the adaptation, but has kept the basic plot, and so has grafted the book’s weakness into the film.
Susan (Adams) has been married to Hutton Morrow (Hammer) for twenty years. Morrow is a successful businessman, though he’s going through a rough patch, while Susan runs a gallery and is active in the Los Angeles art scene. Out of the blue she receives an advance copy of the debut novel by her first husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal). Alone in her house for a long weekend, Susan reads the book, entitled “Nocturnal Animals.”
The majority of the movie is actually the adaptation of that interior novel. Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) sets out with his family on an overnight drive through Texas. In the wee hours of the morning in the empty western part of the state, they’re set upon by three men in what begins with a game of chicken and escalates to the brutal murders of Hastings’ wife and daughter. Police detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) warns Tony that it may take years to find the trio, but that he’ll keep looking.
Ford blends in the backstory of Susan and Edward’s early relationship, and uses the camera to juxtapose Susan and Tony, but the conceit of the novel is the interior thriller is a veiled reference to the earlier marriage and how it ended. That’s set up throughout the film, but it’s never paid off. On top of that, it’s not that compelling of a mystery. It’s like Wright knew the ingredients for a hard-boiled crime thriller, but he didn’t know how to mix them or the proportions to use, and it definitely wound up undercooked. All the style that Ford brings to the story and the competence of the cast can’t overcome that fundamental weakness.
One other factor for a good noir movie is a strong melodic line for the theme music. You can’t think of Otto Preminger’s Laura without hearing the theme music, and Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was strongly supported by Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score. Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski has crafted a score that fits the bill.
If only the film itself had been better.