Much like the sly grin of someone in a naked Instagram selfie that just barely falls within the platform’s guidelines, Tom Ford’s gratuitous and overwhelmingly dumb new film, Nocturnal Animals, is pathetically convinced of its own audacity. It appears to think watching sexy people in crisis—whether emotional or physical—is inherently profound; as though the harsh juxtaposition of gorgeous movie stars and stomach-churning depravity is all it takes to manufacture an affecting melodrama. But a movie has to do more than just show skin to truly get under it.
Based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals stars Amy Adams as Susan, an unhappy art dealer married to a businessman named Hutton (Armie Hammer), the man for whom she left her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), some 20 years prior. On the night of her newest opening, she receives a package from Edward—a book he’s written (and dedicated to her) called Nocturnal Animals. He asks her to read it, so she does. And there begins the back and forth between “real life” and narrative within the book. We go from Adams—draped on a couch or bed in her LA mansion, and reading in almost total darkness—to the story of Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal), whose wife Laura and daughter India (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) are raped and murdered by a grimy criminal named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his pals after they force Hastings’s car off the road in the deserts of west Texas.
While the character parallels here are obvious (Tony is Edward, Laura is Susan), the tension of Nocturnal Animals is meant to come from the slow reveal of the parallel actions. The Texas scene’s more violent moments are often interrupted by Adams slamming the manuscript shut, as though unable to bear the weight of her memory. What could Susan could have possibly done to Edward during their marriage that would have caused him to write such a dark, depraved novel? It’s a question that sounds more compelling than it actually is.
Writer/director Tom Ford wants us to feel things, but doesn’t put enough effort in the right places to make us feel them. He thinks a score filled with wailing strings is enough to make us feel sadness. That glamour shots of impeccably decorated and sparsely occupied homes are enough to make us feel emptiness. That showing us brutal violence is more important than making us understand why it occurred. Much like Ford’s equally soulless film based on a novel, Nocturnal Animals doesn’t feel written, it feels designed—a particularly odd quality for a story about about a book.
But the most unforgivable thing about Nocturnal Animals, something I haven’t been able to stop thinking about since leaving the theater, is its treatment of Isla Fisher. That she plays the character of Laura at all is frustrating enough (why keep Gyllenhaal in both stories, but not Adams?), but the fact that the role requires just three things—to look like Amy Adams, to be the victim of brutal violence, and to have her character’s dead, naked body draped elegantly on a beautiful red sofa—is yet another reminder that Ford cares almost exclusively about aesthetics—despite his claims to the contrary.
Much like the film’s hysterically overwrought final scene, watching Nocturnal Animals is like waiting for something that not only isn’t coming—but had no intention of ever showing up. There’s no depth here. There are just pretty people who know how to look pained, but who weren’t given the words to tell us why. Much like the perfectly cropped nude selfie on your Instagram feed, it’s not saying anything. It’s just showing off.