Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals relies heavily on the literary. Like with The Hours (2002), it weaves three narratives together, whilst simultaneously questioning the nature of art and fictional representation.
The wraparound of the novel is formed through Amy Adams’ character, Susan, who reads the manuscript to her husband’s new novel, Nocturnal Animals. In a letter addressed to her, he states that it isn’t about him. The distance between reality and fiction is blurred – the sequences of the novel, which form a heavy majority of the film – is acted out by Gyllenhaal and Adams. But it’s kept vague – is Edward projecting himself into the narrative, writing about how his analogue’s wife is murdered, in a fictionalised response to their separation? Or is this how Susan interprets the novel, based on her own skewed perspective?
When we see Susan and Edward going on a date in New York City, we become uncertain whether it is a flashback to their history, or if it is a flashback within the novel itself. Is this Edward, or is this Tony? Yet Susan’s mother feels so much out of a Jane Austen novel that perhaps it betrays a sense of the literary.
The film never establishes a clear answer, and lives within its ambiguities. Tom Ford has a craft for the highly visual; often, his shots might as well be for a fashion commercial. Scenes which could play out as literary on the page carry the same sense on film – scenes become highly descriptive, with the buzzing of flies in the Texan desert and other small details given emphasis. The viewer feels the onomatopoeia of firearms, perhaps stronger than they might do on the page.
Yet too often, it relies on exposition to build its characters’ lives up. Ford has a “get out of jail free” card – this is not bad writing from him, but it is the bad writing of Edward, trapped within a manuscript reliant on cliches and archetypes of a middling noir novel. The Texan detective with lung cancer, looking onto the distance with cigarette in his mouth, might as well be the Marlboro Man. He never feels real, but the construction of a mediocre writer who isn’t cut out for it.
The sequences with Gyllenhaal in the desert, estranged from his wife and teenage daughter who have been captured on the road, is the film’s most compelling aspect. Tony is human: a man allowed to feel emotion. We see him trying to make it on his own in the Texan wilderness, where everyone ignores him. Yet despite how strongly they function, these sequences only work in tandem with the scenes with Amy Adams.
Ford is trying to grasp at something larger. Susan questions why we make art, whilst surrounded by her mother’s lavishness and prestige, turning naked women not into an empowering message of “all bodies are beautiful”, but into meaningless art that exists only for the viewer to question why art is even art. Edward’s argument with Susan about wanting his life to mean something and for him to write a good novel reveals a shallowness to him.
Similarly, Ford questions at our social media obsession: it is Tony’s teenage daughter, reliant on her iPhone, who leads to the attack in the desert. Later on, a woman employed by Susan shows off the monitoring system she has on her iPhone, keeping track of her baby daughter without the need for a nanny watching over her. When Susan breaks the phone, the iPhone 7 is out in a week anyway.
Yet Ford is never able to reach to anything deeper. The film has something to it, but it could have gone through a few more drafts.