In the hours after my viewing of Tom Ford’s visually sensational “Nocturnal Animals” have I been unable to decide whether it’s among the best films of 2016 or among the worst.
Undeniable is the fact that it’s the provocative result of superior artistry remarkable in its swagger and its obvious sense of confidence; it’s a feast for the eyes and for the senses, reminiscent of the sleek, noirish beauty of David Lynch’s greatest hits and the masterful tonal chilliness of David Cronenberg’s most horrific works. But also incontrovertible is the reality that it’s also a psychological thriller too expansively written to be tightly suspenseful, too fixated upon its personal style to ring as anything other than an expressive exercise for an immensely talented puppet master.
That puppet master, is, of course, Ford, the fashion world extraordinaire who made his filmmaking debut with the much acclaimed “A Single Man” (2009), unseen by me. Though “Nocturnal Animals” is only his second feature, clear is that he’s not a writer nor a director in love with notions of understatement: not a moment goes by without an optical throat punch. We eternally sit as active viewers, too intoxicated by Ford’s cinematic vision to stew in indifference.
In a day and age where true blue grit is more widely commercially utilized than old-fashioned artistic masturbation, “Nocturnal Animals’s” creative hedonism is revitalizing, a dependable assurer that iconoclasts of the celluloid do, in fact, still exist. But I nevertheless take my appreciation of the film with a sizable grain of salt — I’m spellbound by Ford’s aesthetic genius but am apprehensive toward the execution of the material. Which is only inevitable, considering the labyrinthine intricacies of the story at hand.
Three realities are consistently interacting with one another at every turn, with one set in the present, one in the past, and one in the confines of the violent, malevolent world of a novel. Overarchingly, it revolves around Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an affluent art collector perpetually in various states of discontent as ramifications of rapidly approaching middle-age, an unhappy marriage to the dashing Hutton (Armie Hammer), and a still very much intact guilt over the years-old dissolution of her first marriage.
Just as Hutton leaves for a business trip working as a thinly-veiled coverup for a weekend of illicit sex, Susan receives the soon-to-be published novel of her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal). Dedicated to her and titled “Nocturnal Animals” (after a pet name he gave her in the happiest days of their union), Susan expeditiously begins tearing through the pages and is disturbed by its graphic content. The story to be found is bloody, terrifying, and compulsively interesting. But why has it been dedicated to her, and what parallels are embedded in its visceral pages?
The psychological traumas Ford inflicts upon us early on prepare us for the worst. Obvious is that the story within the story will conclude with the cathartic violence of a near silent spaghetti western, but more concerning is what will happen in Susan’s present-day. Like this year’s excellent “The Invitation,” the wound-up tension of the first forty-five minutes seem to promise an incendiary ending to be vigorously discussed post-viewing. So it’s disappointing that Ford ultimately chooses not only to put more of his energy onto his much less compelling story within his story and his drawn out sequences of flashback but also to end the movie on a whimperingly ambiguous note that derails the potential explosiveness that comes before it.
Ford’s problem isn’t so much with the separately told stories within “Nocturnal Animals” as it is with the pace at which they’re told — its fictional center takes up most of the running time and yet feels almost gratuitously listless, its flashbacks necessary but never revelatory enough to complement our heightened suspicions of behemoth sized amounts of sin. In actuality, Susan’s current life is the film’s most momentous setting (the juxtaposition of the lavish decor of the sets and the barren emotional states of the characters is riveting), but Ford never seems to look at it as much more than purely foundational, expositional. We can see a masterpiece buried underneath “Nocturnal Animals”; one can only wonder how affecting a film it’d be if Ford were leaner in his storytelling methodologies. Perhaps we’d be saddled with the “Blue Velvet” (1986) of 2016 instead of the rambling “Inland Empire” (2006) of the 2010s.
But I still want to rank it alongside the year’s best movies, if only because its aspiration is so unusually feverish that I cannot help but recommend it based on my desire to hear of its effect on others. “Nocturnal Animals” is the kind of movie that will remain to be polarizing in the decades to come, some seeing it as a stylistic masterpiece of stellar drive and some as a deeply unsatisfying detour in artistic indulgence. I sit somewhere in the middle, hesitant to lean toward a definitive takeaway because the film itself is so challenging. But the work of its actors (Michael Shannon, as an intriguingly mysterious supporting character of the literarily based dreamworld, is a sure bet for a Best Supporting Actor nod) is dynamic, and Ford’s visual gall is bewildering. The clearing of my head, unfortunately, is the thing I’m most unable to get away with.