In Nocturnal Animals, Jake Gyllenhaal demonstrates how much he’s learned about acting: he turns “bastard” into a three-syllable word. Playing a Texan whose first novel lands on ex-wife Amy Adams’ California doorstep, Gyllenhaal is himself an objet d’art, a triumph of genetics; Diane Arbus might have dreamed of a creature with comically huge eyeballs, parody of a mouth, thick shoulders, gangly frame, and a horse shit cornporn accent. Nocturnal Animals might’ve been better off exhibiting him on a dais for comic effect. Tom Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright’s Tony & Susan, about the owner of a gallery whose dead marriage and empty life get a jolt while reading her ex’s book, is what you might expect from a director who knows about glamour and nothing about art. Based on Jena Malone and Adams’ costumes, I have my doubts about the former too.
The opening credits give the game away: obese women doing cheerleader routines as glitter rains. The camera ogles them like carnival freaks, freezing their breasts and thighs in terrifying closeup – welcome to life for Los Angeles art world cognoscenti, I guess. Although husband Hutton (Armie Hammer, typecast forever) earns enough money, she wants to follow her passion or something; besides, with his constant business trips to New York he shows no interest in her anyway (maybe he doesn’t like her taste either). Then Nocturnal Animals, written by Edward (Gyllenhaal), arrives on her doorstep. Ford’s movie becomes a story within a story, showing how a man named Tony (Gyllenhaal too) teams up with Sheriff Carlos Holt (Michael Shannon) to find the men who raped and brutally killed wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and his daughter in West Texas.
The trick of Ford’s movie is to cut from the developments in the novel to Susan’s “real” life, but as the horror in the former accumulates the L.A. strand looks increasingly antiseptic; the violence is supposed to excite her, vicariously. I’m not sure what Ford wants the audience to think about Edward’s novel. Before Susan has gotten herself comfortable to read it we know the novel will be one of those faintly autobiographical things conceived by people who’ve never read a novel. Ford gives himself an out in a flashback nineteen years earlier during which Susan in essence wipes her nose with one of Edward’s earlier pieces of fiction. Or maybe it’s the same novel; if so, he ignored her advice. So did Ford, who writes the clumsiest exposition I’ve seen in recent years: the kind that has to cram vital information (HUTTON: “Who’s Edward?” SUSAN: “My first husband”) and the kind that explains what we’ve just seen. One particular clunker happens early: after a glimpse of a man kissing another man at a party, a friend of Susan’s explains, “It’s not so bad having a gay husband,” and explains it brightly too, as if Ford wanted to shock the suburbanites who’ll never watch this film.
Nocturnal Animals might have had insights into the tired binary about following one’s dreams versus waking up and living in the real world, and I suppose Ford want to argue that, having chosen The Real World, Susan is as miserable as Tony. Surrounded by awful art and phony conversations, married to the guy who played J. Edgar Hoover’s quasi-lover, Susan spends hours with Edward’s equally terrible novel when cocaine and public libraries are accessible; how can I feel sorry for her? Amy Adams, distracted and wan, as if haunted by Julianne Moore’s similar work in 1995’s Safe or any number of Monica Vitti characters in Antonioni films, doesn’t give a performance – she presents a series of theatrical gestures, like gaping at theoretical perversities or falling into exquisite chairs as if they were beanbags. Gyllenhaal, who’s been doing fine, adventurous work for a few years, is reduced to looking bug-eyed and stricken; who wouldn’t look stricken when saddled with TV dialogue like “Two things I love about West Texas: no phones, no people”? Overwrought, over-lit, hysterically composed, those Texas scenes get drawn out for no purpose but kinks. I counted one exchange I liked: Edward, who had been childhood friends with Susan’s younger brother, learns that the kid had been in love with him. Gyllenhaal’s reaction – he’s flattered – is a glimpse of humanity.
In his determination to get off on soul rot and moneyed decadence while condemning it and being modish and affectless about it, Nocturnal Animals reminds me of last summer’s howler The Neon Demon. Ford demands a range of responses but is cool – the operative word – with your committing to none of them. Whatever else, Showgirls exists. Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 release, which has gotten a couple of second looks in recent years, is no classic, but it sports humor, energy, and no pretension to art; it’s smart enough to understand the difference between the chic and tawdry and the women who want both. By contrast, watching Nocturnal Animals is a crushing experience, akin to Susan’s quiet death-in-life. What a feat – a movie that wants audiences detached from their own responses. Enervation is the craze.