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‘Nocturnal Animals’ is more than than the sum of its stylish parts

Amy Adams in Tom Ford’s NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Courtesy of Merrick Morton / Focus Features.

It’s a difficult thing to create a work that is somehow both enigmatic and narratively satisfying. Yet, after some consideration, I think I am going to have to say that Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” pulls it off. Maybe.

It’s definitely an impressive film, considering that this is only his second feature. But Tom Ford is not your normal director. You see, if, over the past ten years, you have seen someone dressed in an impeccably tailored-suit and thought “Damn. That is one good looking man,” you should probably thank Tom Ford — one of the world’s most renowned fashion designers. And while talent rarely translates across fields — just ask Eddie Murphy’s musical career — Ford proved himself the exception to that rule in 2009 with the emotionally-yearning romantic-drama “A Single Man.”

And now, seven years later, Ford has decided to expand his oeuvre by making a meditative work on melancholia and bourgeois ennui. But he has also decided to make a hard-boiled revenge thriller. And intriguingly, he has found a way to make these two completely divergent tempos and impulses work together in one film. I think.

Initially, “Nocturnal Animals” revolves around Amy Adams’ Susan Morrow (who between this and “Arrival” is having a really good November). She’s a renowned L.A. art dealer whose work is mainly appreciated by elites with too much time and too much money. She lives in a mansion too good-looking to be a place that anyone would actually want to live in. And she’s trapped in a loveless marriage to the wealthy, distant financier Hutton Morrow — who is making the minimum amount of effort to hide his infidelities.

But her dull, decadent lifestyle gets a much needed shock to the system when a package arrives from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield, a struggling writer that she hasn’t spoken to in many years. Inside it, she discovers his latest work, “Nocturnal Animals,” a tale of bloodlust and revenge set along the West Texas badlands. Dedicated to her.

And this is where the second plot of “Nocturnal Animals” kicks in, as the movie dedicates roughly half of its runtime to following the fictionalized world of the novel, and half to the steady unraveling of Susan over a long, lonely weekend spent reading Sheffield’s book. The novel itself follows Tony Hastings, milquetoast man traveling across West Texas with his wife and daughter. He’s non-confrontational to a fault, which does not serve him well when his family is driven off the road by a trio of redneck ne’er do-wells. What those men do to Tony will haunt him for the rest of his life, and set in motion a very entertaining — and very conventional — tale of backwoods vengeance.

But the sheer banality of the novel is what makes this movie so intriguing. Because what seems like a straightforward work of genre fiction keeps being confounded by the film’s twisty, elliptical nature. For one, Jake Gyllenhaal plays both Edward Sheffield and Tony Hastings. For another, Tony’s wife is played by Isla Fisher — who shares a great physical likeness to Amy Adams. But does this mean that the Sheffield is working out his anger towards Susan and their failed marriage through his novel? Or only that Susan interprets his novel this way?

This is the fun of “Nocturnal Animals:” how it fuses metatextual inquiries with basic plot mechanics. It makes for a film with a potent, heady structure — one made even more mystifying by how artificial the supposed real world feels. Every bourgeois character Susan interacts with is a walking cliché, obsessed with Botox, alternative medicine, and avant-garde art. Meanwhile, the characters in Sheffield’s novel crackle with life. The most complex role in the entire film belongs to Michael Shannon’s rough-hewn, terminally-ill Texan detective — and he doesn’t have a real-life equivalent.

This obfuscation extends to the very nature of the cinematography itself. While portraying the world of the novel, Ford emphasizes beautiful wide-open vistas and clean, clear compositions. Meanwhile, he depicts L.A. through claustrophobic tight-frames, disquieting jump cuts, and obtuse camera angles. We expect a film to gently transition us between the real world and a novel with a nice voice-over and a slow fade-in. Ford gives us a disorienting hard cut.

A work like this practically demands some audience interrogation. What does it mean that Susan’s memories of Sheffield seem to shift depending on her progress through his novel? What happens when a traditionally masculine revenge fantasy is viewed entirely from a female perspective? What asshole dedicates a book about rape and murder to his ex-wife? And most importantly of all, why do I like this film so damn much?

Because to be clear, I could never quite shake the feeling that this film was pulling the wool over my eyes. Digging beneath its surface seems to reveal an interesting plethora of thematic and stylistic quandaries and contradictions. But I could never fully overcome the doubt that these contradictions were not intentional, that this gorgeous film really was as superficial as it initially appeared.

To me, the mixing of these two clichéd plots produced, through some sort of cinematic alchemy, an intellectual work that was far beyond the mere sum of its parts. To you, it might just produce two clichéd plots. And that’s okay. There are a lot of art-films coming out this year that I think everyone should see. “Nocturnal Animals” is not one of them. It’s too remote and too reflexive to ever be something that anyone could whole-heartedly love. But, if you are finding a lot of modern films dull, and are in the mood for a challenge, then “Nocturnal Animals” might just be the film for you.

And perhaps that was the point of this movie all along. Within the film, Susan has devoted her life to fostering forward-thinking works of highbrow culture. But ultimately, the piece that most affects her is a lowbrow pulp thriller. We can’t choose the art that speaks to us. We can only listen when it does.

Contact Raymond Maspons at raymondm ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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