Nov 28, 2016

Nocturnal Animals

A stylish mess. Amy Adams is wasted in a rudderless role in this modern noir by Tom Ford about a wealthy woman who has everything and is deeply unhappy. She lives in a modernist box in the Hollywood Hills, has a penchant for terrible performance art, has a handsome, unconcerned husband (Armie Hammer) and gets a manuscript in the mail from her ex (Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a poor sap) in which he has novelized what she did to him before she married the millionaire.
As she reads the book, we go back and forth from her slick, empty existence to a garish American Gothic tale of violence. The elements of the plot of this film have far more promise than Ford knows what to do with and what could be a satisfying blackhearted noir about revenge with a strong femme fatale is a clumsy study in empty artificiality. Perhaps the structure is what dooms the film. If everything important happens either in the past or in a book, there's no momentum and no suspense. A femme fatale who mopes and reads is not necessarily the most compelling plot device. Compounding the problem, the pulpy novel doesn't seem to be very good. Its opening scenes are patently absurd, but it gets better as it goes along. In fact, it gets immeasurably better the moment Michael Shannon shows up as the sheriff of a sleepy dump in Texas where Edward, the protagonist of the novel (also Gyllenhaal) and his family get singled out for abuse by evil local yokels that look like runway models in a Tom Ford fashion show. The main meanie is played by a dramatically miscast Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who despite his best mugging is completely unconvincing as evil in cowboy boots.
Shannon is by far the best thing this film has going for it. The movie feels like a mannequin challenge that comes alive only when Shannon is in the frame. He inhabits his character as cozily as someone wears a pair of faded jeans. He also looks like the only one who's having fun. Everything else is stiff and ersatz and more than mildly ridiculous.
The second best thing is the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, which makes Los Angeles dark and brackish and lights the flats of Texas with its own dramatic sunlight. You can enjoy this film for the way it looks and sounds (fabulous fashions, a lush noirish score by Abel Korzeniowsky), but it desperately needs more.
It's hard to waste and misdirect an actress of Adams's caliber, but Ford doesn't give her character dimension, so Adams flounders, still finding some good moments, but unable to bring into focus the person she plays. Poor Jake Gyllenhaal is saddled with the thankless role of playing someone who doesn't fight back. His moment of glory comes offscreen. The ending is also about the best part of the movie and saves it from being completely absurd.

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