Novel adaptations are obviously no new trend, but how about a novel adaptation that’s principally focused on somebody reading an entire novel? Well, now we’re breaking new ground here, folks! Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) lives a depressing, vapid life with a crumbling marriage, dwindling finances, and many sleepless nights. She receives a manuscript of her ex-husband Edward Sheffield’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) soon to be published novel, Nocturnal Animals, a crime thriller about a vengeful husband and father. As Susan makes her way through the novel, she’s reminded of the failures of her previous marriage, while struggling to come to terms with her current position in life.

Writer/director Tom Ford is a fashion designer first and foremost, and a filmmaker in a very distant second. Adapting the novel Tony & Susan, this is only his second film, his first being the 2010 drama A Single Man, which was also adapted from a novel. It’s clear that the man only makes films when he finds interesting material, so I’m curious why he would choose something as difficult to tackle like this. Being told in two different narratives, taking place in Susan’s real world, and the world of the novel she’s reading, the film is just all over the place. The events in the novel world are supposed to be an allegory for the real world, but I hardly ever got that feeling. It at times feels like two completely different films edited together in some sort of bizarre experiment. While the structure is an intriguing way to tell the story, the poor execution made it all fall apart. The pacing is so awful, sometimes finding ourselves in the novel world for what feels like up to a half hour, occasionally making me forget the actual story. Ironically enough, I found these fictional sequences within the film to be the most interesting.

Ford has a fantastic eye and composes some absolutely gorgeous shots, but there’s not much else behind it. While the characters are developed, a lot of it is at the expense of a plethora of horrible blatant expository dialogue. I’m not as averse to exposition as some film watchers, but when it feels like every single line is just used to explain something, it ends up becoming very tedious. Barely anything is communicated visually. It’s funny how Ford will make commentaries on the blandness of modern art, and produce something just as empty. Upon further analysis and thought, I do appreciate the story he was trying to tell, but while watching, I just didn’t care about anything. Numerous plot threads are underdeveloped, sometimes even being completely abandoned after one mention. I got no sense of time passage, or where exactly I was supposed to be in the character’s lives. It doesn’t help that the editing was absolutely atrocious, filled with jump cuts and random cuts to black, constantly causing me confusion.

If it weren’t for the fantastic performances, it would have been a total loss. While Jake Gyllenhaal’s character was (partially) fictional, he was the character I was the most invested in. The man simply has amazing range, believably going from a meek man, to a crazed, broken, vengeful one. Michael Shannon was the real highlight here, playing a gruff, surly detective with a high sense of justice in the novel’s world. I love that dude. He pretty much elevates anything he’s in, and was a huge factor in my enjoyment of the film. To be honest, I’d watch a whole film about that character, Shannon is so good. The rest of the cast, featuring Amy Adams and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, are great, as always, bringing their own brands of gravitas to the screen. It’s just a shame that it’s all for this mess.

I think it’s completely valid to say that enjoyment of certain films partially comes from whether the viewer “gets it,” or not. I’m able to admit that with some films, I just didn’t get it. While the story and characters of Nocturnal Animals are interesting at their core, it’s at the expense of a hodgepodge of too many ideas and themes that never fully come together. I haven’t read the novel this film is adapted from, but it feels clear while watching that this story seems to work better in the written format, where every element can get the necessary development and space to breathe. Some books just don’t work in a visual format, but Tom Ford clearly wanted to use this story as a vessel for his criticism on the vapidness of modern art, and the artists behind it. Unfortunately, he seemed to fall into the same trap. Like a lot of art, Nocturnal Animals is beautiful to look at, but as time goes on, you realize there’s not much there underneath.


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