A so-so novelist, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), sends his ex-wife, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), disillusioned owner of a faddish art museum in New York (in her words, one she has come to see is merely another of today’s houses of Shock Art showing sensationalistic “junk”), the draft of his new novel, Nocturnal Animals, dedicated to her and, his accompanying note says, sent directly in plain brown wrapper to allow her to be the first to read it. Director Tom Ford has voiced his excitement at the idea of making a movie which turns on the ploy of one character communicating through fiction to another who appears (still) to be a Beloved. Ford pursues the project with considerable skill in movie technique. Narrative skill, though, is another matter.
The movie is cinematically beautiful–a spectacular visual feast of wonderful selectivity and stamping accuracy of two hugely contrasting worlds: empty Manhattan chic rendered in stunning cold and metallic imagery and empty Texas badlands of the Criminal Chase shown in awesome sweeping-but-lonely panorama. Edward’s draft novel tells of a novelist, “Edward,” whose wife and daughter are taken from him on a lonely West Texas road and, after he is left stranded in the vast wastes, brutally raped and murdered, their bodies found later by Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a classic chain-smoking Texas lawman lean and smart in a Stetson, with The End of this Revenge Cliche the vigilante killings of the murderers by Andes and Edward, the latter redeeming his manhood after his failed protection of his wife and daughter but destroying himself in the Execution.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, and enthralled by Edward’s narrative, Susan, a femme fatale of the Poor Little Rich Girl type, forgets for a while her shallow Manhattan art-world swirl–a swirl Director Ford peoples with varieties of the poseurs Salinger dramatized decades ago as “phonies”–and comes to see that she wronged Edward in leaving him for another and very rich man, enacting a prophecy her wealthy mother (Laura Linney) made to her about the pitfalls of marrying a Romantic writer unable to give her a life of the Rich and Famous.
I’ll not be spoiler and say whether Susan and Edward do or do not get back together. To do or not to do….
It’s far from a great movie, but there are two reasons to consider seeing it. The first is the wonderful actor, Michael Shannon, in his role as Detective Andes. Previously Shannon starred in Revolutionary Road and in 99 Homes (reviewed elsewhere in the present blog) and has emerged as simply a great actor, one of the finest of our day, the kind of actor you attend movies, just about any movies, to savor.
The second reason is Director Tom Ford’s great talent for visual richness. Nocturnal Animals is a splendid banquet for the eyes. Much of Ford’s obvious intent to portray realms of emptiness in our culture as well as to dramatize the spirit of American places from sea to shining sea comes across in the imagery itself. In this sense, there are three frames here. The movie story, the novel as story within the movie, and the judgment in the scenic imagery.
Willy-nilly or not, that’s an achievement in making a rich art experience for an audience.