Review: Nocturnal Animals

1 February 2017


In 1750, Jean Jacques Rousseau attempted to diagnose the sickness at the heart of his contemporary French artistic life. To the maverick philosopher, France’s art world “stifled in men’s breasts that sense of original liberty for which they seem to have been born”. The artists of his day, obsessed by status and reputation, had let spontaneity and originality fall by the wayside. Raw human expression was being cruelly suffocated by all which was “frivolous and petty”.

In the spirit of Rousseau and the eighteenth century’s radical sentimentalists, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals continues the struggle for authenticity and artistic integrity against the cold forces of civilisation. It poses a difficult question to its audience: is much of what is being produced in the mainstream art industry actually meaningful?

To the film’s main character Susan (Amy Adams), it’s not. An artist steeped in the pomp and splendour of the LA art scene, it’s clear she’s become disillusioned with her life’s calling. Whatever the cinema audience may think of her audacious exhibition (a set of delicately decorated obese dancing women which forms the film’s opening shot) to her it’s just “junk – total junk”.

Scenes of Susan’s work life are dripping with the artifice which so frustrates her. She is surrounded by fake people with plastic faces, who obsess over fashion, technology and appearance. The film satirises them, peaking humorously when we see a colleague show off an app whereby she can watch her baby sleep and spy on the nanny. Objectification replaces any real human bond, and Susan is perplexed. But this pretentious world, we learn via flashbacks, is what she broke up with her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) to be a part of. An honest but struggling writer, he no longer had a place in her plans as she went on to pursue status, wealth and a vapid, handsomer husband.

Susan’s self-doubt eats away at her as she begins to read a novel Edward unexpectedly sends to her. Its plot is a thinly veiled representation of the pain their break up caused him as the main character Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), who Susan visualises as Edward, sets out to avenge the kidnap, rape and murder of his wife and daughter. As she reads, the novel’s story plays out on screen alongside the ‘real world’, and couldn’t contrast more with the banal life she leads. The beautifully shot Texan desert in which it is set is raw and visceral. The story is packed with drawn-out suspense, lavish violence and emotional anguish. Ford, with little subtlety, tries to be as harrowing as possible, creating the film’s central juxtaposition – a Romantic backlash against Susan and the superficiality she represents. Edward’s novel is all about pure, unadulterated human feeling.

Unfortunately, Susan and Edward never really exist outside this obvious dichotomy. Their characters feel one-dimensional at times; Susan bored and boring, Edward passionate and hopelessly quixotic – and it never gets much more complicated than this. Even the detective character, Andes (Michael Shannon), who helps Tony find his wife and daughter’s killers, is a bit of a walking cliché – another hard-edged dryly funny American bad-cop.  Ironically, exploring the depth of the characters’ humanity takes a back-seat to the film’s spectacular settings and imagery.

Rousseau, however, probably wouldn’t mind. Were he alive today, he’d hate Hollywood for the same reasons that he hated the French intellectuals of his time. In an industry where an alarming number of new films seem to fit into the twin categories of ‘Oscar-bait’ or sequels and remakes of existing franchises, creativity is too often replaced by pre-ordained formulas and box-ticking. If limited, Nocturnal Animals is undoubtedly refreshingly unique, in line with its deeply Romantic worldview.

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