Did I outsmart “Nocturnal Animals,” or is it just a fairly surface-level psychological thriller? Both – or neither – may be true. But the longer I sat watching Amy Adams’ Susan Morrow taking in the manuscript of her ex-husband, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Edward Sheffield, the more I wondered if this was really it.
Director and adapter Tom Ford names both Kubrick and Hitchcock as influences on the film, and it shows in his meticulous attention to the organization of the frame and the calibrated cutting between them, respectively. He deftly cross-cuts between three storylines: the events leading up to the relationship fissure between Susan and Edward, the visualization of Edward’s novel that blows up the essence of their acrimonious split into a Western revenge tale centered around the taunting and torturing of an emasculated family man, and then Susan reading the text and carrying the weight of those words through her jaded days as a Los Angeles art dealer in decline. When the biggest problem is selling the 36-year-old Gyllenhaal and 42-year-old Adams as old enough to have been split for 20 years, that’s a good sign that a lot is working correctly.
But once the connection becomes clear that the novel is a roman à clef about the effects of the divorce on Edward, the pressure mounts for “Nocturnal Animals” to do something more with its intertwined narrative. For the most part, Ford keeps it fairly straightforward. The beautiful surfaces do say so much about the characters, particularly Susan’s sterile, well-coiffed home and wardrobe that reflect the belying calm facade she presents to the world.
Unlike Ford did in his debut feature, “A Single Man,” he never quite manages to crack into the inner world of his characters. Particularly in the case of Susan, whose development is so often limited to what we can discern from behind the thick rectangular frames of her glasses. Adams hits every cue and note with perceptible precision, yet she feels trapped by the exactitude of her director. Ford has every right to make actors meet his demands and, as Hitchcock famously declared, treat them like cattle. But a performer of Adams’ considerable skill has earned the right to be a co-author of the film. Her instincts as an actress are virtually unmatched, and I longed for her to have the same freedom to explore and create that David O. Russell gave her in “American Hustle.”
Adams, like so much else in “Nocturnal Animals,” feels programatic, as if Ford were forced to rely on humans to tell the story because a computer algorithm could not cook up something to his strict specifications. Beautiful and shiny though it may appear, this tale of former lovers lacks a certain human passion that might add shades of ambiguity or mystery. The story itself has those things, granted, but they wrap up by the film’s close. In other words, you’ll go window shopping with Tom Ford and take nothing home. B /