Nocturnal Animals is meant to be confusing – whether that will console audiences is another question

What at first resembles a thriller becomes more about the complicated way art emerges. But does its film-within-a-film puzzle work?

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Dedications can be complicated things. Marvin Gaye knew this. Ordered to hand over a chunk of the profits from an album to his first wife, Anna, for their divorce settlement, he recorded the defiantly bitter and uncommercial Here, My Dear. Tobias Wolff dedicated his memoir This Boy’s Life to his first stepfather: “[He] used to say that what I didn’t know would fill a book. Well, here it is.” When Susan (Amy Adams) receives her ex-husband’s debut novel at the start of Nocturnal Animals and finds that he has dedicated it to her, she would do well to beware. Opening the parcel, she injures her finger, but there’s worse to come than a paper cut.

Susan hurt Edward many years earlier and now his book (also called Nocturnal Animals) is a form of disguised revenge. As she settles down with the novel, what she reads is played out before us: Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) is driving through the night with his family when his car is shunted off the road by another vehicle containing three young men led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It would be unreasonable to spoil the terrible surprise of what happens next, especially as this sequence provides the severest jolt of energy in a film that verges on the languorous, but readers of the novel on which Nocturnal Animals is based (Tony and Susan by Austin Wright) will know that the two parties don’t end up going together on a wine-tasting holiday in Napa Valley.

The absence of any simple correlation in the film between Susan’s and Edward’s relationship, which is shown in flashback, on the one hand, and the story that Edward has written, on the other, creates a coiled internal tension. Our brains can’t help but try to solve puzzles. The question is whether audiences that are frustrated by the movie will be consoled by the knowledge that it’s intentional. They’re meant to be.

What at first resembles a thriller reveals itself as a study of the intangible process by which art emerges. No one in Edward’s novel is exactly drawn from reality. People from his life have morphed into actions and emotions. Like the obese naked women dancing in slow motion as the opening credits roll, the shape of the story is amorphous, without any clear geometrical form or lines. This is complicated by the casting of Gyllenhaal as both Tony and Edward, inviting us to read them as the same person, and the cuts linking Susan to Tony (taking baths at the same time or checking their emails), which imply that they are surrogates for one another. This isn’t The Wizard of Oz, in which each black-and-white character has a spe­cific Technicolor counterpart. Everyone here equal parts Dorothy, Wicked Witch and Cowardly Lion.

A film that contains another film risks competing against itself, as The Wizard of Oz proved, and no one caught up in the sweaty tornado of Edward’s fiction will be wondering what’s going on back in the antiseptic apartments and feebly satirised art happenings that define Susan’s life. It’s not that the film within the film is necessarily better – it was disastrous, for ins­tance, to cast Taylor-Johnson as an uncouth psychopath. When Brad Pitt played a similar part in Kalifornia, he had the decency to look mad and unwashed, whereas Taylor-Johnson is unmistakably an actor for whom living dangerously means skipping his exfoliating regime for a day.

At least Edward’s tale has momentum: Susan’s involves waiting and thinking, acts that the most exquisite lighting cannot render compelling. The contrast – one story cool and remote, the other sun-bleached and seamy – is supposed to be jarring. By adapting the novel, though, the fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford (who made A Single Man in 2009) has introduced a different imbalance. Presented with the story in the form of a novel, the reader could read along with Susan. Now we’re just watching her leaf through a book and seeing the images she conjures in her head, which removes the connective tissue between us and her. Ford made his priorities clear when he named his film after Edward’s novel rather than allowing the story, as Tony and Susan did, to occupy a space equidistant between art and life. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 03 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind

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