When the last credit of Nocturnal Animals rolled, my first thought was that this was a profoundly silly movie. The more I think about it, the more I’m on the profoundly hilarious campy wavelength of this trashy movie as filmed in the style of a fashion catalog.
Nocturnal Animals opens with a bunch of large naked women wearing only shoulder epaulettes and a drum major hat, an image frightfully similar to cult drag star Dina Martina in 2015, dancing in front of a red curtain waving around sparklers and American flags. The camera zooms in on their fat ripples, stretch marks, and surgery scars as they gyrate and undulate for the camera. These dancing fat women are part of a gallery where the women are then posed naked and dead on white slabs for a high class audience. Later, the gallery owner, Susan (Amy Adams), admits that the show was terrible, shallow, unfulfilling pop junk. That admission is Nocturnal Animals in a nut shell.
Nocturnal Animals is three trashy 80s airport novels – a Cormac McCarthy-esque thriller, a Gone Girl esque meta-novel, and a tragic romance – all thrown together in one overly stylish movie. Director Tom Ford is best known for turning the House of Gucci around from its tragic embrace of 90s grunge into the far more modern fashion line people see it as today. Ford’s previous movie, A Single Man, about a gay man in the 1960s mourning the death of his lover, resembled a series of fashion commercials strung together to form an idea of a plot; it would not have been out of place for a brand logo to pop up every two minutes. Here, Ford re-embraces the catalog look, but at least remembers to make a coherent movie.
Wealthy gallery owner Susan is dissatisfied with her high art lifestyle. Her devastatingly handsome and unsuccessful husband, Sutton (Armie Hammer) is nakedly cheating on her; her successful art career no longer satisfies her; and she can’t help but feel self-loathing for her upper class unhappiness while being surrounded every object her heart desires. Heck, she even has an ironic giant concrete half-deflated balloon animal on her lawn, either just installed or ready to be torn down. Like her art, her gallery and her husband, Susan’s daughter only exists to validate her existence. Her tragic life of self-obsession is interrupted when her long-estranged ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her the first draft of his new manuscript, implying she may like the subject matter.
The book, Nocturnal Animals, is the trashy Cormac McCarthy-esque thriller section of the movie. On a desolate road in West Texas, Tony and his family are terrorized by a group of thrill kill sociopaths. Tony weakly stands by while the sociopaths manipulate him and his family in a poorly-written Funny Games knock off. In Susan’s self-obsessed mind, her ex-husband Edward stands in for Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal plays both roles), Tony’s wife is played by Amy Adams’ doppleganger Isla Fisher, and Tony’s daughter has more-than-a-passing resemblance to Susan’s one-scene daughter. By piling her life on top of this trashy C-grade thriller, she (and Tom Ford) adds pathos to a story that would have been largely forgotten as straight-to-VHS filler.
In turn, the combination of the profound unhappiness of her everyday life and her fictionalized torture causes Susan to remember her version of her tragic romance with Edward. From their meet cute in New York through the cruel climax, its all about Susan and everything she did to deserve the self-torture she inflicts on herself while reading Nocturnal Animals. Nearly emotionally heightened moment in the novel is met with a real life symbol and another chapter in this Lifetime-movie-in-waiting.
To some people, all this metaness and self-obsession points to a deeper meaning about how we consume art and how much of our own lives we bring into our interpretation of the art we’re consuming. As my review of Other People reflects, I’m totally susceptible to placing my own life on whatever art I’m consuming. But, Tom Ford makes it clear he thinks this is all wankery. Nocturnal Animals the book begins with “For Susan,” and the very last end credit of Nocturnal Animals the movie is “For Richard and Jack.”
To a discerning eye for irony and camp, Tom Ford fills the movie with tongue-in-cheek bad writing and obvious tips of the hat. When Susan goes to a board meeting for some art museum, Ford focuses on the art piece hanging in the lobby – a giant dead animal carcass shot with dozens of arrows. Is Edward killing their relationship in public for everybody to see, or is Tom Ford commenting on how much of the movie is overkill? The next piece of art in the museum is a stark white on black painting of “REVENGE” in giant dripping letters. To top it off, Jena Malone walks in wearing the most ridiculous outfit this side of the avant-garde challenges of Project Runway.
What am I supposed to do with this movie? This is a movie which features a cross-fade between Susan’s head and naked Tony where her head is placed right into Tony’s crotch as if to give him an interreality blow job. Is Ford having a laugh, or is he commenting on how everybody fantasizes about blowing naked Jake Gyllenhaal to cheer him up? 30-year-old Armie Hammer is playing a man married for 20 years; is Tom Ford using him as a statue, or is he reflexively commenting on how women always have to play older (Jennifer Lawrence in Joy) but men generally play younger? Though Susan only thinks about herself, Nocturnal Animals is almost all about Tony/Edward and their reactions to her; is Tom Ford submitting to or commenting on Hollywood’s tendencies to make every female role deferential to a male reaction and how women are forced to process dude-centric fiction? And, the ambiguously hilariously cruel ending? Is that meant to be just another meaningless conversation piece?
Considering I didn’t even make it past the opening credits before I was comparing it to a drag show, and I left the theater laughing my fool head off with sheer joy, this film is a trashy camp delight. My first instinct was that this was a tragically silly film that unintentionally fooled arthouse audiences into liking a genre film. But, I’ve come to the conclusion that Nocturnal Animals is a genuinely silly film that takes the piss out of arthouse audiences that take art way too seriously. It’s all mental and emotional wankery that serves Tom Ford’s catalog porn sensibilities more than it stimulates post-modern discussion on interjecting our self into our art consumption.