It’s not terribly common but there is something of a history of people becoming film directors after rising to prominence in other fields. The most famous example would probably be the circle of film critics who would pick up cameras themselves and begin the French New Wave, but there are other examples as well like when Jean Cocteau transitioned from his literary achievement into filmmaking achievements or Pier Paolo Pasolini’s transition from the world of literature and public intellectualism to the world of cinema. This sort of thing isn’t unheard of today either what with people like Julien Schnabel being able to transition from painting to filmmaking or (on the more lowbrow side of the spectrum) Rob Zombie being able to be both an active rock star and a fairly prolific film director. However, one of the strangest of all the transitions into filmmaking was that of Tom Ford, who went from being a fashion designer famous enough to warrant having an entire Jay-Z song named after him to being a pretty successful film director when he made the 2009 film A Single Man. That movie, about a gay man in the 1960s mourning the death of his lover, is not really a movie that’s been at the forefront of my mind since seeing it but I do remember being fairly impressed by it when I first saw it. Ford’s sophomore effort was seemingly delayed as he focused on his day job, but after about seven years he has returned with a thriller of sorts called Nocturnal Animals.
The film focuses in on a woman named Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who owns an art gallery and lives a life of cosmopolitan glamour and is married to a stable and attractive man named Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). Things are looking up for her until she received a package containing a manuscript for a novel written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) called “Nocturnal Animals” (a former nickname he had for her) and dedicated to her as well. Intrigued she begins reading the novel, which is dramatized at length onscreen as she reads it. This story within a story focuses on a man named Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose life is turned upside down when a group of rednecks led by a guy named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) runs him off the road and kidnaps his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) and leave him stranded in the West Texas desert to die. This novel disturbs Susan to her core and starts to distract her from her day to day life and leaves her to reflect on where she went wrong in her first marriage and where she is today.
Nocturnal Animals certainly has a unique structure, the way it intercuts dramatizations of the novel with the “real” story actually reminded me a little of the “Tales of the Black Freighter” sections of Alan Moore’s graphic novel “Watchmen” both in terms of format and content. In fact, the “fake” story might actually take up more screen time than the “real” story; at the very least it has more of a conventional beginning middle and end. This “fake” narrative also has what is easily the highlight of the movie, a very tense scene in which the novel’s protagonist encounters a band of hillbillies and has a road rage incident escalate into violence in a way that really brings the viewer in on the protagonist’s general impotence in the face of this looming threat against his family. That material is very effective, but from there this novel within a film starts to get more than a little hokey. The revenge sections of this narrative are rather clichéd and filled with elements like generally unmotivated villains and police investigations that are rather ridiculous. To some extent the film can be excused for some off moments here by the fact that it’s reflecting a narrative written by a fictional author of questionable talent ala the sections of the movie Adaptation that were supposedly penned by Donald Kaufman, but at a certain point the film is still spending a lot of time presenting this stuff.
What’s more, it seems a little odd that the Susan character would get this worked up about a book that kind of sucks. Early in the movie I had assumed that the narrative being presented by the novel would much more closely mirror some pain in Susan and Edward’s past, but as the flashback narrative progresses it becomes clear that the split between the two of them was a lot more mundane and in some ways underwhelming than what the movie initially teased. Clearly there are supposed to be parallels between the two stories as Jake Gyllenhaal stars in both but the wife and daughter characters are not played by either Amy Adams or the young woman who plays Susan’s daughter in one scene and no one else has a dual role either. I suppose there are other parallels between the novel and the flashbacks in the vaguest of plot parallels what with both being about a meek man wronged, but if there are any other connections they kind of seem to be in Susan’s mind moreso than on the page and the similarities certainly don’t seem like they’re strong enough to cause her to lose sleep and start seeing creepy things in her day to day life. If anything this novel mostly just makes its author seem kind of pathetic: a dude who after something like twenty years still hasn’t gotten over being dumped and is still engaging in vaguely stalkerish writing projects rather than moving on with his life.
I got some sense that the movie was trying to make some sort of statement about the “two Americas” that we saw emerge over the course of the recent election: that of urban sophistication and that or rural simplicity with neither depictions seeming true so much as proactively exaggerated. In the “real” story we get a glimpse of Susan’s life in Los Angeles which is almost cartoonishly vapid and filled with people dressed in ridiculously garish clothing and people backstabbing each other right and left and all this is driven home by Susan’s mother who seems to view class with about as much nuance as Marie Antoinette. On the other hand we see the rural world of the novel which is filled with random violence and resentment. It is also almost certainly not a coincidence that the “real” story depicts a world that is largely female dominated while the story of the novel is highly masculine and filled with bravado, resentment, and metaphorical dick measuring contests. There’s no way that this tension is accidental and yet the movie never really goes anywhere with any of this so much as it drops these observations and moves on without coming to any conclusions.
So, looking at the movie I’m not really sure what it wants to be exactly. Its format seems to suggest it wants to be this unique and sort of meta-exploration of its character’s psychology but it also wants to be a satire about American class struggles and it also wants to be a kind of trashy revenge thriller and I’m not sure the movie really works on any of those levels. Its strange structure and abrupt ending will probably baffle anyone expecting this to be work as a sort of beach-read style mystery but I also don’t really think the ideas are there for it to work as anything deeper. Ultimately the movie is kind of a mess, but not a completely unsatisfying one. Amy Adams is pretty good in the movie even if she seems a bit young for the role she’s playing and the film’s basic craft elements also function pretty well. It certainly gave me a lot to dig through even though I ultimately didn’t really like what I found upon further reflection, but there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours watching a movie.