Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals opens in grotesque fashion, with a gratuitous display of naked, morbidly obese bodies shot in sensual slow motion. It’s possible to read this concupiscent whirlwind of flesh, in which manifestations of the female form not normally classed as beautiful are winkingly exoticized via lavish, adoring photography, as smirking commentary on the reaction to Ford’s debut, A Single Man, dismissed by some as nothing more than an emptily attractive stylistic exercise. Ford’s sophomore feature is an equally flashy aesthetic endeavor that’s also overflowing with ugliness, and the conflict between these two qualities suffuses every frame. Cataloguing the seemingly unbreachable divide between two different versions of America, Nocturnal Animals submerges its tongue-in-cheek cross-blending of pulp and melodrama beneath a veneer of absolute sincerity, skewering the enduring cultural fascination with the down and dirty in a manner that’s genuinely ambitious and interesting despite a full battery of flaws.
Ford quickly complicates the film’s initial images by suggesting the freak-show presentation of those imperfect bodies is a choice made by its protagonist, part of a garish art opening presented by high-end gallerist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). From here the film at first seems to embark on a straightforward satire of upper-class venality, cycling through a familiar parade of parties and encounters, its characters displaying shallow charm and posturing friendliness to distract others from their conniving egotism. Morrow, a once-earnest artist who didn’t have the confidence to make it on her own, now hocks faux-controversial Banksy knockoffs and haughty Jeff Koons-style trash objects, their gold-plated hollowness reflecting the phony nature of her glamorous lifestyle. Even this seems poised on the precipice of collapse, thanks to a fracturing relationship with her businessman husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), a flat cipher of a character who typifies Susan’s ill-fated decision to choose stylish comfort over actual substance.
The plot splits in two once she’s mailed a proof of a new novel by her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a professor who’s spun the story of their breakup into a hard-edged, desert-set fable of murder and revenge. The masculine-coded rejoinder to Susan’s saga of domestic unfulfillment, the novel’s text is depicted here via successive instances of macho one-upmanship, with a series of violent instigators stutter-stepping between menace and affability, like cats toying with their prey. Every instance of camouflaged cruelty in Susan’s scenes thus finds its overt opposite in the one created by Edward, as Ford clumsily links the veiled betrayals she’s experiencing or has committed with the naked displays of aggression carried out in Edward’s story. These play out in a flat, dusty terrain that’s captured with uncluttered simplicity, a further contrast to Susan’s sumptuous world of crowded rooms and mirrored surfaces. Telling this story within a story, while incessantly toying with the borders between the two, Ford crafts a film built on a series of parallel divisions, between rich and poor, pretty and ugly, straightforward and duplicitous, toying with the wide cultural gulf between coastal elites the occupants of what they might refer to as of fly-over country.
Edward’s novel follows Tony (also Gyllenhaal), who, along with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), gets accosted by a joyriding crew of manic good old boys during a nighttime drive through the wilds of West Texas. The confrontation takes a nightmarish turn, and Edward finds his life upturned as a result. Things only get darker once he connects with Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a rogue, Mephistophelean lawman in a battered cowboy hat who promises to help him regain his vanquished manhood by pushing outside the accepted bounds of morality and jurisprudence.
The characters in this section stand out as distorted inversions of the bloodless, well-heeled socialites in the other, with both types representative of the overblown stereotypes each side traditionally ascribes to the other. Chief among these is hick heartthrob and louche criminal Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose sculpted bod and sociopathic behavior sum up the film’s aesthetic fixation on weaving beauty together with repulsiveness. This gets summed up in a ridiculous showdown wherein Ray faces off with adversaries while seated atop a working toilet that, for whatever reason, he’s rigged up on his front porch. Literally caught with his pants down, he luxuriates in the chance to keep his captors waiting as he extravagantly wipes his ass, an image seemingly snatched from a gritty R-rated reboot of Hee Haw.
Odd, ostentatious moments like this, so effective at both illustrating and puncturing stereotypes while intermingling ugliness and artistry, confirm the film’s caricatural intent. Matching updates of two dynamic variants of mid-century noir (the gonzo woman’s pictures of Otto Preminger with the psychological nocturnal westerns of Anthony Mann), Nocturnal Animals gets close to a double-barreled satirical thriller commenting on the historic rift between city and country. But for all his panache, Ford lacks the focus and control of someone like Brian De Palma, whose work, including his recent Passion, routinely straddles such disparate divides. Nocturnal Animals, meanwhile, wastes too much time fulfilling the nuts-and-bolts demands of both of its genre exercises to transcend their limits, while remaining too scattered and routine to actually work as a satisfying example of either.
The film’s best achievement remains its illustration of the supposed lewd, overflowing vitality of the lower classes butting up against the frigid primness of the upper, which then vampirically exploits this divide as part of a ritualistic cultural transfer. This process, by which the rustic, the seedy, and the menacing are drained of residual danger and reimagined in chic aesthetic forms, is one of the trademarks of both the fashion world from which Ford hails the high-end art scene in which Susan operates, the latter seen in that flamboyant opening show and the stylishly shabby pieces that litter her gallery. The film itself carries off a similar act of transference, repackaging grim, nasty authenticity as shiny pop product, even its ugliest revelations sugarcoated within correspondingly gorgeous images.
Such a combination might have yielded marvelous results were Nocturnal Animals willing to get truly weird, but Ford instead remains too reliant on overwrought imagery, residual prestige affectations, and conventional rhythms to break free of either genre the film experiments with, leaving one section stuck as a second-rate Cormac McCarthy adaptation, the other a tamped-down Fassbinder tribute. Its ultimate message, that the stereotypical façades which front these two worlds only serve to disguise how much they have in common, ends up getting muddled rather than expressively conveyed, leaving Nocturnal Animals as a film that stands tantalizingly close to greatness.