REVIEW | 'Nocturnal Animals' a mixed-bag

In “Nocturnal Animals” (Tom Ford’s elegant and disturbing meta-noir) I found myself liking the fictional “story-within-the-story” far more than the story around it.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner stuck in a loveless marriage. One day she receives an advance copy of a novel by her ex husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Sheffield has dedicated the novel to Morrow, telling her in a note that she provided the inspiration he needed to write it. She sits down to read the book and we’re transported into the fictional narrative with her. The film jumps back and forth between the novel and the “real world.”

The novel tells a fairly standard male revenge story (set in the dusty, wide open plains of Texas) in which a sensitive, nonviolent man named Tony (also Gyllenhaal) is emasculated by a trio of sadistic rednecks, losing his wife and teenage daughter in the process and learns to embrace a dark and violent dimension of himself he didn’t know he had. Although, Ford’s handling of it is damned gripping, equal parts stomach churning and exhilarating.  

During one of the first scenes, as Tony and his family are driving on a deserted highway at night and the trio of rednecks follow them and play chicken with their car, you know what’s coming. A feeling of nausea creeps into your stomach, your palms sweat. Like any great thriller director, Ford drags the action out, keeping you in a constant state of anxiety. I usually take notes during screenings but while this internal narrative was going on I was petrified — unable to take my eyes off the screen or force my hand to write on my notepad.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for any kind of revenge story and this one has all the right pieces, executed with a visceral precision: a deliberate pace, a conflicted, angry protagonist on the brink of exploding into a murderous rage and a truly despicable villain — Aaron Taylor-Johnston is terrifying as the lead redneck. Oh, and Michael Shannon as a “lets-do-things-off-the-book” police officer. Shannon is the MVP here (honestly, when is he not?), calmly menacing in that typical Michael Shannon way. His bulging, unblinking eyes on their own are enough to make the hair on your neck stand up.

Though, when the action focuses on Morrow outside of this “fictional” world, “Nocturnal Animals” is not so thrilling. Morrow can’t stop thinking about the novel in her day to day life and through flashbacks we learn about her and Sheffield’s romantic history and why they broke up. Through these flashbacks and the novel itself, a portrait of Sheffield gradually takes shape and it’s fun trying to figure out his mysterious motives: why did he dedicate this book to her? Unfortunately, this outer story is still tedious to sit through. While the inner narrative has a forward pulsing momentum, this one just flatly sits on the screen…literally so.

There are a lot of scenes of Morrow sitting around, staring pensively into the distance. She stares pensively into the distance while in the shower…or in the bathtub…or at work. She’s either thinking about the novel or thinking about her past. Turns out that constantly watching scenes of a person sitting around and thinking doesn’t make for compelling cinema, even if it is Amy Adams. Adams does what she can but her performance stays infuriatingly one note. It got to the point where whenever the film would cut from Tony’s story to Morrow’s I would breathe a sigh of frustration and eagerly wait for it to go back.

On its own, Tony’s novel would make for a solid, well-executed piece of pulp revenge cinema. The framing narrative involving Morrow and Sheffield provides the southern fried tale of vengeance with an intriguing meta/psychological layer but the sheer dullness of its execution ultimately makes “Nocturnal Animals” a mixed bag.