Renowned fashion designer Tom Ford's directorial debut, the 2009 release A Single Man, often had the look, feel and depth of an Elizabeth Taylor White Diamonds commercial. It was saved and made worthwhile by the dazzling work of leading man Colin Firth, who garnered a richly deserved Oscar nomination (and, in my humble opinion, should have won). Firth managed to transcend the curious emptiness of A Single Man, a picture lavishly shot but exceedingly difficult to otherwise connect with.
Ford's sophomore effort, Nocturnal Animals, lacks a commanding performance quite on the same level of Firth's but does show some modest improvements on the filmmaker's end. About half of Nocturnal Animals, in fact, is a pretty damn great and exciting movie. But boy, it's a rough endeavor on the whole.
Without giving too much away, the picture, based on Austin Wright's 1993 novel Tony and Susan, opens with Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy Los Angeles art gallery owner, receiving a manuscript in the mail, titled "Nocturnal Animals," from her estranged ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). While her hunky dud of a second husband (Armie Hammer) is away on business, Susan dives into the novel, which turns out to be a horrifying story about a man whose family road trip turns into a grisly nightmare.
Susan begins to see parallels between the story and her relationship with Edward and the film bounces around among present day, Susan's past with Edward and the story in the manuscript itself. The novel is lived out on screen by Gyllenhaal again, portraying the tortured lead protagonist, and features a dynamite, intense turn by Michael Shannon as a chain-smoking local detective.
The story without the story here turns out, by far, to be the most compelling material. Gyllenhaal and Shannon do career-best work and are supported by convincing turns from Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Isla Fisher to boot. Here, Ford shows a real knack for building suspense and crafting engrossing, empathetic characters. Abel Korzeniowski's sublime, Pino Donaggio-like original score and Seamus McGarvey's gorgeous photography compliment the director's efforts.
Problem is, that's only about half the picture. The other half, with Adams in the spotlight, is plagued by many of the same issues that dragged down Ford's first film. Here, it's all style over substance, with only the contributions of Korzeniowski and McGarvey to really write home about. Scenes involving Susan's eccentric art gallery colleagues are a snooze and, just as the scenes in the novel begin to give the picture a real lift, we get a momentum-killing cutaway back to Adams. Not that Adams isn't in fine form here but she isn't given nearly as the same opportunities as Gyllenhaal to let it rip and there are only so many distinct ways to capture Susan looking concerned or disturbed.
Watching Nocturnal Animals, I thought to myself, this is probably what The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would have looked like...had Brian De Palma directed them. And crossed them with a cologne commercial. The film is worth a look for many reasons but, fair warning, it is kind of a mess overall.