As far as memorable forays into filmmaking go, Tom Ford’s A Single Man was one sure to cement anticipation for what might come out of the brain once behind Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent next. Fragile, piercingly emotional, and featuring a performance from Colin Firth that (likely) helped him win an Oscar a year later, it was a deeply moving and personal but never self-indulgent portrait of grief, a distinct first outing destined to be remembered.
If anything, Nocturnal Animals – Ford’s follow up seven years later – proves that he’s hesitant to rest on the thematic and stylistic laurels deployed in A Single Man, playing in the bloody waters of trashy thrillers while dabbling in cold melodrama. The film exists somewhere between the hoop-earringed 1970s and the smartphone-anchored 2016, Andrea Riseborough donning large . It’s stuffed with top-shelf talent, from Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michael Shannon in lead roles;as well as the likes of Riseborough, Michael Sheen, and Jena Malone in near-cameos; to Seamus McGarvey behind the camera, Abel Korzeniowski scoring, and Arianne Philips creating the costumes. But despite buzzy names delivering the soapy dialogue and making the film look perfectly icy and garish; Nocturnal Animals fails neither resonate, entertain, or thrill, instead feeling too glacially cool for its own good.
The film has its foot in two worlds. In one, Adams is troubled gallery owner Susuan, who is gradually being sucked dry by the bitter Los Angeles art scene, which is also too impossibly cool for school. By day she deals with callous clients who hunger for pieces built on shock tactics, one of which forms the opening credits and will be sure to inspire many an immediate walk out. She glimpses her husband (an appropriately chiseled Armie Hammer) only at breakfast, before they both embark from their satellite-like house to lead separate lives. Adams is barely serviced here, her role so absent and devoid of any kind of feeling that it’s a disengagingly blank canvas. It feels like a less playful and self-aware version of The Neon Demon, with Malone’s gallery assistant even feeling like she’s fallen out of the same universe as that film.
But when a mysterious book arrives on Susan’s doorstep, written by her ex husband Tony (Gyllenhaal) it quickly spirals out of control. A tale about a man (also Gyllenhaal, there’s no explanation needed for what the film is getting at here) who seeks revenge on the tattooed, slack-jawed, desert-dwellers that killed his wife (Isla Fisher, her casting as the barely fictional, easily disposable version of Adams an uncomfortably brutal choice) and daughter with the help of an ailing policeman (Shannon). The book is dedicated to Susan, which immediately sends her into a tailspin of memories.
The sticky crime drama in the book is interspersed with Susan’s nightly reading of the book that quickly becomes stuck in her brain, which in itself is intercut with her meet-cute and romance with Tony in snowy Manhattan as graduate students, gradually filling in the blank spaces. It’s expectant, promising to reveal some kind of connective tissue between the threads that don’t meld stylistically or narratively, but doesn’t. What is the oh-so-terrible thing that tore Susan and Tony apart never reveals itself. Is this gruesome novel even directly inspired by some elusive thing from their relationship in the first place, or is it all dreamt of a sleep-deprived, overactive imagination? Ford is working towards some kind of absent depth, leaving one begging that he’d embrace the inherent silliness instead. But by the time Ford decides to abandon the constricting self-seriousness, the film is too much of a haphazard mess. The result rings of none of the humanity in A Single Man, instead feeling airless and unnecessarily mean-spirited, the violent attitudes towards its female characters notwithstanding, like he’s merely grafting the source material onto the film. What did Tony and Susan do to each other before they became hollowed out, icy, nocturnal husks? That remains a mystery.