Fashion designer du jour Tom Ford could only go up from the travesty he made in 2009 of Christopher Isherwood’s superb 1964 novel A Single Man, one of the greatest, most complex works of queer fiction (hell, of fiction in general), which he transformed into a visually garish, monotonously self-pitying dirge. With Nocturnal Animals, an adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, he’s found a much more apropos subject: Superficial Los Angelinos behaving superficially. As long as the emotions have all the depth of a Vogue or Vanity Fair cover, Ford’s in his element.
That’s not to say that the film, which intertwines three story threads, lacks for a certain kind of ambition. Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an ice-queen art-world icon on the downslope of her marriage to a dashing businessman (Armie Hammer). One night, she receives a package from her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), that contains a novel titled Nocturnal Animals. It’s Edward’s thinly veiled exploration of the feelings stirred up by their divorce, and as she reads the book, the action of it plays out on screen.
The story-within-the-story is a little bit Cormac McCarthy and a whole lot of high-toned lit-world trash about a Texas family man, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), who seeks revenge on the psycho, Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who murdered his wife and daughter. Reading it, in turn, makes Susan recall the better days between her and Edward in New York, when their lives were much fuller, even though success was frustratingly out of reach.
So is this Tom Ford’s Stranger Than Fiction? His Adaptation? This is entertainingly self-aware tosh, evident from an early composition that juxtaposes a bulldozer with one of Jeff Koons’s life-size balloon doggie sculptures—an image so smugly mindful of its own shallowness that you can’t help but begrudgingly respect it. The nesting-doll narrative structure mitigates any complaints that this is, at heart, a tale of privileged artists working through their first-world romantic travails via a patronizing fantasy of flyover-state discontent. Really, each story thread is of a tonal piece, all about striking poses as opposed to exploring humanity.
Taylor-Johnson’s redneck nutter is Leatherface as runway model. (Watch how he’s filmed sitting, beautiful and buck naked, on an outdoor toilet; he even wipes his ass sumptuously.) Gyllenhaal and Adams emote like crazy, and look gorgeous doing it, but you half expect Annie Leibowitz to be outside the frame calling the shots for a Vanity Fair Hollywood issue. Michael Shannon is brilliant as the menacing Texas lawman, Bobby Andes, who helps Tony put his vengeful plan into action. His best scene involves a violent coughing fit that he halts in the most nonchalant, über-macho way imaginable.
There are also (intentionally?) hilarious cameos by Laura Linney as Susan’s socialite mother (wearing a pearl necklace that would give Barbara Bush pause), Michael Sheen as a pretentious prig who seems here mainly to model a killer leprechaun-green coat, and the great Jena Malone as an L.A. museum board member whose vapidity is so pronounced it’s practically endearing. Ford and weightless gloss go well together, though this doesn’t change the fact that Nocturnal Animals is an impeccably tailored suit fitted over gas.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.