Nocturnal Animals—the latest from ex-Gucci Creative Director Tom Ford, starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon, and photographed by one our best living cinematographers Seamus McGarvey—is the kind of singularly infuriating work that makes you wish the talented people you like were less talented so that they never found a way onto his radar.
Susan (Adams) is an emotionally distant modern art gallery director auto piloting her way through her thankless job, vain marriage and uppity rich New York family ties until she receives a manuscript of a new novel written by her bitter ex-husband and literal Guy In Your MFA, Edward (Gyllenhaal), which under its trashy noire veneer, contains a deeply explicit allegory for their troubling past together.
Ford’s script, based on the novel Susan and Tony by Austin Wright, plays like a Nic Pizzolatto biopic (whose work, like Gyllenhaal’s Edward, often reads like Cormac McCarthy parody too) not just arguing for the value in his juvenile, hyper-masculine revenge fantasies, but for the heads of any and all snobs that don’t indulge his every whim because they just don’t appreciate art, man. And what’s probably most offensive about the whole affair is that Ford isn’t a totally inept filmmaker either. There are interesting aesthetic choices happening here (it helps to have McGarvey’s muscular lens contrasting cartoonishly modernist sets with aggressive Texas vistas), and sometimes even a modicum of self-awareness—granted, only a barely passable amount, we are talking about a dude that hides all his trashiest moments, including a moment that lovingly films violated female corpses, behind a thin veil of subjectivity (and, SPOILER, climaxes with literal abortion shaming.)
Ford also maintains his keen eye for performance; Gyllenhaal gets lost in an intentionally broad caricature but Adams owns her awful character with such power she almost convinces you it’s complex, while Michael Shannon enters from another planet and brings with him the closest thing we’ll probably ever get to the voice and image of God. Even Jena Malone and Laura Linney crush their all-too-brief scenes. Under regular circumstances it would be difficult to hate any film that features Isla Fisher cast as the broadly fictional Amy Adams (ouch!) and Michael Shannon chewing this much scenery (surprise, he’s the best part) but ultimately Ford’s puerile cynicism, more in line with an obnoxious subtweet rant than anything cinematic, overrides the skillfully shallow thrills, including a stellar car chase sequence that’s probably the most assured thing he’s ever shot.
There’s no doubting that this is a confident, layered piece of filmmaking… Just unfortunate about all the dogshit it’s layered with.