Nocturnal Animals (2016)

“Depraved Highway”


Imagine Apple’s creative design team, the artists who created the sleek metallic elegance of the Mac Book Pro on which I am composing these words, suddenly being asked to build an electric chair. No matter how beautiful the outcome, we’d still be inclined to foreground the fact that the object is built to murder people. That’s the way with Tom Ford’s new film, Nocturnal Animals, replete with an intriguing narrative complexity, illuminated with splashes of stunning visual design. But what this hollow film adds up to is cold, inhuman, and offensive.

The film begins with a credit sequence meant to shock. Grotesquely overweight nude women hold sparklers and American flags while gyrating. We come to realize they are live artworks on pedestals at a gallery opening designed by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an Ivy League educated artist who lives a vacuous existence in Los Angeles and New York. Others tell Susan that the show is terrific, but she rightfully has her reservations. It does not seem likely that Ford is autobiographically critiquing his own sham artistry, but he should be. What force can a critique of the ugliness of America have when it is delivered by thin, beautiful artists who are oh-so-much-more stylish than the rest of us?

Shortly afterwards, Susan receives in the mail a manuscript for a novel by one Edward Sheffield, a man whom she reminds her current adulterous husband was her first spouse from two decades earlier. The odd conversation—Why would a husband not remember that his wife was previously married?—gives us only slight pause, but the film’s unreliable narration begins to unravel from here.

Susan begins reading the manuscript, a story about Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) driving his wife and teenage daughter through West Texas one night. Three country bumpkins smash their car into Tony’s on an isolated stretch of highway. Ray, Lou and Turk leave Tony abandoned on the side of the road as they take the two women off to an isolated cabin to rape and murder them.

With each new escalation of violence in the novel, Ford cuts to Susan’s shocked reaction, and in flashback tells his own tawdry tale of the relationship between Susan and Edward, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Against the advice of her snobby mother, Susan married Edward as a young man, an impoverished, struggling author. When Susan meets Hutton (Armie Hammer), a successful businessman, she abandons Edward, going so far as to abort Edward’s baby so that she may marry the unctuous financier.

Ford annoyingly dissolves from Tony in the shower after the assault on his family to Susan in the shower trying to cleanse the experience of reading the novel. In both cases, the wet, naked bodies of beautiful Hollywood actors serve as Ford’s design elements. In the film’s most reprehensible such cut, detectives take Tony to the red couch on which the rapists have deposited the naked bodies of Tony’s wife and daughter, staged to face each other in a grotesque embrace of Thanatos. Ford cuts from this graphic image to Susan’s grown daughter naked and in bed with her lover, answering a phone call from her mother. A red blanket at the woman’s feet reminds us of the echo from the red couch on which the fictional dead women lay murdered. Like my fanciful beautifully designed electric chair, this sequence is disgusting in its pointless depravity, a Romantically beautiful image with no symbolic weight.

However, as the plot unfolds, it becomes increasingly obvious that Susan and Edward and one and the same. I came to this conclusion in the middle of the film, when the naked obese women from Susan’s art show suddenly appear outside of a honkytonk bar within the fictional story. Ford is clearly aping the Surrealism of David Lynch here, but to much less coherent effect. One of the obese women has a scar across her abdomen, emphasizing fertility via the suggestion of a caesarian section, or perhaps an even fainter echo of Susan’s abortion. However, other than stuffing ugliness into the viewer’s consciousness, these symbols come to naught. The film’s theme of the viciousness of humanity, both in fictional action and in reality’s emotional cruelty, is obvious to the point of banality.

Like David Lynch’s worst movie, Wild at Heart (1990), Nocturnal Animals is a perverse retelling of The Wizard of Oz (1939). In Victor Fleming’s adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s novel, Dorothy (Judy Garland) dreams of going to Oz, which she does in the form of an MGM Hollywood soundstage. After getting hit on the head during a tornado, she wakes up to realize that the splendor she dreamed was all in her imagination. Sweating in her bed, she sees the family’s Kansas farmhands standing above her, worried. The actors who played her fictional friends in Oz are the same ones playing the farmhands. This doubling, of Tony and Edward, recurs in Nocturnal Animals. However, where Dorothy’s dream in The Wizard of Oz serves to visualize female fecundity, both of her entrance into adulthood but also celebrating a fertile life of the mind, Susan’s invention of Edward and Tony merely emphasizes her desperate isolation.

At the film’s end, Susan seems to get an e-mail response from Edward arranging a meeting at a fancy LA restaurant to discuss his novel. In the film’s last sequence, Susan waits for a dinner companion who clearly cannot come. She is left in isolation. The story that Edward, or more likely she has created, reads like an inversion of The Wizard of Oz. Rather than, “there’s no place like home” [in Kansas], the ending of Nocturnal Animals emphasizes that there’s absolutely no place like West Texas as imagined by the obnoxious 1%ers who fly over it in between jaunts to LA and New York City. The bumpkins who appear out of darkness on the dark and isolated highway are mere shadows, stereotypes so bereft of interest as to only exist in the fearful imaginations of Yale and Columbia art school graduates.

By the film’s end, we never meet Edward in the present, most likely because he only exists in Susan’s imagination. Within the fictional story, everyone is dead. Tony improbably falls on his own gun after having shot the last of the murderers, but like Oedipus, blinded by a brutal blow from the villain’s tire iron. Even the lead detective on the case, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, in the worst role of his career) retreats into oblivion. In a ridiculous plot artifice, he decides to goad Tony into vigilante justice because he is dying of lung cancer. Thus, with the retreat of her husband Hutton to New York City to be with his adulterous affair, the only person left in the entire narrative universe is Susan, sitting alone at the restaurant. If only Tom Ford could join her, and leave the rest of us alone.

–Walter Metz