Style over substance

This is my review of Nocturnal Animals (DVD + Digital Download) [2016].

The wealthy and successful owner of an avant garde New York art gallery, Susan Morrow is taking stock of her glamorous life and finding it hollow. She is drifting apart from her husband, who resents the humiliation of her casual offer to buy some new artworks to mask his financial problems. Is he having an affair and does she regret walking out years ago on Edward, the first husband she loved, but who disappointed her by his failure to write a successful novel together with his lack of ambition.

She is in a vulnerable state when, perhaps improbably after a gap of almost twenty years, Edward sends her a proof copy of the novel he has finally produced, perhaps ominously entitled “Nocturnal Animals”, a reference to his old nickname for her habits. As she reads it, at night, of course, her thoughts continually turn to memories of her life with Edward, her belief in his creativity as a kind of substitute for her lack of it, her cynical, materialistic mother’s belief that Susan will end up like her, and Edward’s frustration that Susan seems unable simply to trust in their mutual love. In his novel, Edward has stuck to his belief that all writing is ultimately about oneself, but has taken aspects of their relationship to construct a very different world from their own, in which a family’s road trip to rural Texas leads to a shocking chain of events.

The film employs the device of “a story within a story”, requiring intense concentration to avoid confusion as it flits between the two, with Jake Gyllenhaal playing both Edward the sensitive would-be writer and Tony, his fictional hero who is powerless to protect and perhaps too feeble to avenge his wife and daughter against Texan “white trailer trash”.

This psychological thriller interweaves two tales of revenge: the “fictional”, physically very violent, the other “real life”, providing more subtle forms of emotional pain. Both threads are often humorous, the characters well-observed, and scenes visually striking, be they carefully constructed shots with fashion designer turned film director Tom Ford’s obsessive eye for detail in Susan’s gallery and her ultra-modern glass-walled mansion, or on the other hand, beneath dramatic blood-red clouds at sunset, the stark, arid scrubland of Texas, sparsely inhabited by the decaying shacks of the disaffected Trump-voting poor.

Stylish and quite original, the film holds one’s attention until the abrupt, somewhat ambiguous ending leaves a sense of anti-climax, bringing the first opportunity to take stock as to exactly what the film is about. I have read that Tom Ford wants us to be forced to think, but cannot help feeling that much of the film’s impact is visual, such as the geometric pattern of flights of stairs on which Susan continually fades from view only to reappear as she makes her ascent. I find it hard to believe that such a gentle and perceptive soul as Edward would harbour destructive feelings of revenge for nineteen years, nor that either his book, inspired by but far removed from his relationship with Susan, or his ultimate behaviour towards her in any way amount to devastating retribution. So, perhaps I missed something, but I would describe this film as entertaining, visually striking, but not very moving in Susan’s unreal “real life” although Edward’s fiction is more disturbing.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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