When Tom Ford adapted A Single Man, a swift, sweet, deeply felt Christopher Isherwood novel about the secrecy, solitude, and longing of a gay man’s life in the mid-twentieth century, I was dazzled. Ford seemed like a director who could do that delicate and difficult thing, step back from his source material and let it play out naturally, with a small cast of great talent. A Single Man (2009), starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, and Nicholas Hoult, was the first adaptation of an Isherwood novel—for reference, The Berlin Stories became various iterations of Cabaret—that caught the mood of the original. Ford, in an egregiously successful first foray into filmmaking from the fashion world, certainly didn’t set the bar low for his second feature.
So when Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal graced the screen for Nocturnal Animals, I stood ready to be amazed—or at least, impressed. Instead, I found myself mystified. Nocturnal Animals is the kind of understated, elegant movie that inspires a great deal of faith from its viewers. Surely, these threads will tie together. Surely, the details will arise disastrously between the characters and the drama will take on its rich, full form in the course of the narrative. Sadly, scene by meticulous scene, with top-notch talent and cinematography to drop jaws, the movie draws to a close with the sense that two or three vital plot points have been left out.
The story is essentially the narrative of a pristine, highly successful, and highly unhappy gallery owner and manager Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who is led down a melancholy trail of regret by the arrival of an advance copy of her ex-husband’s novel. That ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) has written a violent thriller: in the inverse of all Susan’s high-brow, ultra-elitist, borderline-nonsense art, Edward has hit bluntly and below the belt. The hopeless, self-destructive caper, which begins with the horrific death of the protagonist’s red-headed wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). The novel, which we see acted out on screen with Gyllenhaal as the devastated protagonist, Tony, is a revenge plot: his Amy-Adams-looking family has been destroyed, and with it, his life. Susan, meanwhile, is faced with the thinness of her own glittering life, with its strange parties and stilted, silent galleries, as well as the decay of her second marriage. The accusatory tone in Edward’s novel doesn’t go over Susan’s head: as the stories parallel one another on screen, we see how the novel leaks into and mirrors Susan and Edward’s past, as well as Susan’s present.
The subtext is clear: Susan has destroyed Edward, betrayed him, brutally, in the way that she abandoned their marriage and her ideals along with it. But why is the story being told? To show us, and Susan, through the lens of violence and loss what a monster Susan has been? The harm she’s caused? How none of her cruelty was worth it? Or, more reductively—but sadly, I think, more accurately—is the novel meant as a giant so-there/I-told-you-so from her ex, whose art she didn’t believe in. She sees how wrong she’s been to trade in dreams for the dismal rewards of materialism and security. In other words, the artist finally triumphs in a tale of the artist versus the practicalities of the so-called real world. It feels petty. Worse, it feels puerile.
I want to think better of the movie. It’s so capably made, so beautifully acted, so exactly and masterfully shot, but the great so-what of the movie never really hits home. We don’t know why it matters, why we should care. Yes, the story’s sad, it’s full of genuine pain accumulating wordlessly between people, but that pain doesn’t feel like it pays off. It only builds and builds until the credits roll.
The problem with this movie is its story: it doesn’t offer Ford the same opportunities to dig and reflect as Isherwood’s understated novel. Where this story demands explication and detail, Ford offers his same, hands-off approach with which he treated Isherwood’s cerebral narrative. What we get as a result is a no-man’s-land, where the ambiguity that made Single Man shine instead runs havoc in Nocturnal Animals.