Frame stories are a difficult thing to pull off sometimes. The term, if you’re unfamiliar, refers to stories within a story; for instance, the way that Frankenstein opens with the diaries of Robert Walton, who then starts to relay the story of Victor Frankenstein. Nocturnal Animals, the second film by director and fashion magnate Tom Ford, juggles not just a frame story, but a gradually unfolding flashback as well, hoping that they’ll all come together in a satisfying way by the time the film ends. The good news? The narratives most definitely connect. The bad news, though, is that the connections are all either bludgeoning and heavy-handed or else arbitrary and silly. And if that hurts, the fact that only one of the stories is any good – and even that one only a little bit – is a death knell for the film, through and through.
Let’s start with that frame story, which introduces us (after an pointless, eye-rollingly “edgy and provocative” credits sequence that kind of reminded me of this classic Onion article) to artist Amy Adams, living in a lifeless marriage with Armie Hammer and trying to make it in the art scene. (If you’re wondering if this arc will contain absurd art types that you can’t tell whether or not they’re parodies, you’re in luck.) The morning after her big art opening, she receives a package from her ex-husband – a proof copy of his first novel. And as she begins to read – and the audience sees the novel as a film within the film – she also begins to think back on her relationship with that ex-husband and what happened between them.
What’s so frustrating about Nocturnal Animals is that it shouldn’t be as bad as it is. Ford made a stellar debut with the beautiful, moving A Single Man a few years back, and it’s clear that he’s a man who knows how to frame a beautiful image – there are some stunning shots throughout the film, plain and simple. The cast is packed with great actors – not just Adams and Gyllenhaal, nor just reliably great presences like Michael Shannon, but also people like Isla Fisher, Laura Linney, and more. In other words, you have all the ingredients for a great film…
…but you also have this script, which asks us to find sympathy for Adams’ remarkably flat, uninteresting, and massively unsympathetic figure. It plunges us into the world of the insanely rich and aimless and wants us to ache for their ennui over their own selfish choices, and to be floored/moved that one of them read a book. And it wants us to engage ourselves with the pulp noir novel that Adams’ ex wrote, which turns out to be a fairly average, completely unsurprising story that goes in all the usual directions you’d expect.
That’s not to say that there aren’t moments worth watching. The inciting incident of the noir story, which involves a late night encounter on a Texas highway, is intense, unnerving stuff, and it just keeps cranking up the tension until it’s unbearable. And of course, Michael Shannon makes every scene he’s in worth watching just by being there, bringing his strange, off-kilter, jangling presence to bear in a role that really doesn’t have much meat on it.
But none of that forgives the heavy-handed, bludgeoning connections between the stories, which were beautifully summed up by some anonymous Internet commenter as being like one of those Facebook posts designed to make you feel smart by telling you that 80% of people can’t figure it out. There’s little way to miss the connections between the novel, the flashbacks, and where Adams ends up, and Ford makes sure that the script hammers the points home by repeating key words as needed in arguments and dialogue. Even so, those are preferable to the overwrought immediate connections between the novel and Adams’ current life, which take the form of sounds outside, pointless repeated images that mean nothing, and most bizarrely, jump scares. (Yes, really.) At least the heavy-handed stuff has a purpose to it; by the time Ford is echoing murder tableaus with shots of Adams’ daughter in bed, you want to tell him “Yes, we get it; she’s thinking of the book; you don’t have to beat us over the head with it.”
Ford is a gifted filmmaker; he’s more than capable, even in a bad film, of astonishing images, great scenes, and even some good performances. But Nocturnal Animals is just hilariously overwrought, insistent on its own non-existent depth, full of characters without any personality or complexity, and insufferably pretentious about the pain of people who we just don’t give a crap about. Go see Manchester by the Sea if you want a great film this holiday season that’s not your typical mainstream fare; even better, go see the transcendent Moonlight if it’s still anywhere around you. But don’t waste your time on Nocturnal Animals.