There is much to admire in the curious case of Nocturnal Animals. The film’s conceit is that Amy Adams’ character is reading a novel by her ex-husband, (Jake Gyllenhaal), which recounts the story of a husband’s quest for vengeance after his wife and daughter are murdered by a gang of hillbilly hicks following a nighttime encounter on a deserted West Texas highway. The kidnapping scene in the B-story generates an impressive degree of dramatic tension which fuels the whole film. In addition, the editing, presumably locked into the script, is superb, as the film cuts between the B-storyline and Adams’ lonely Art Dealer character, whilst then incorporating a C-storyline which is the backstory of Adams and Gyllenhaal’s ill-fated marriage. The cinematography and score are Hitchcockian. As noted, there’s much to admire and for large swathes of its two hours, the film is captivating, as we wait to discover what all this means.
Which is where the other side of the coin comes into play. In the end, it would appear that what the director is seeking to do is present a study of masculinity. What makes for a strong man and what makes for a weak man? Gyllenhaal, the novelist, (Gyllenhaal also plays Tony, the victim of his own story, meaning he’s presumably the novelist’s doppelgänger), is dumped by Adams because he’s seen as weak and romantic. In the climactic scene of the B-story, Gyllenhaal, the fictional character, breaks down and blames himself for what happened to his wife and daughter, saying his weakness was to blame. Gyllenhaal the fictional character is presented with two alpha-male antagonists in his wife’s murderer and the detective who investigates the case. The Adams character, who looks like she’s being set up to be the protagonist, virtually disappears from the narrative; her role is to read the book and look distressed as she has flashbacks to the events surrounding the marriage she walked out of.
The culmination of all this, (sorry to spoil it), is that just when it appears that Adams and Gyllenhaal are going to reunite and possibly get back together again, after he’s communicated his cryptic message through the novel, he chooses to stand her up. At which point, one’s reaction might be, as was mine: is that it? Does the Gyllenhaal character finally prove his masculinity and overcome his weakness by standing up his ex-wife? Her chosen profession as an amazingly successful art dealer has become little more than incidental by this point. Where the film had hinted in the first act at an Antonioni-esque inquisition into the correlation of the values of the art world and the real world, this is a strand which isn’t developed. (There’s even a pseudo Hirst vitrine at one point, a cow with needles sticking out of it.) It’s also notable that the B-story, (the novel) doesn’t really go anywhere, turning into a run-of-the-mill revenge drama which comes to a predictable finale.
Ultimately, what this glass bead game of a movie presents is a sophisticated structural approach which lacks any real punch. It’s clear that the issue of masculinity that Ford addresses is a potent one in his country, where a macho blowhard can become President because he’s perceived to talk tough and wear a red hat with a catchy slogan. It would appear that there is some kind of crisis of masculinity (perhaps in truth there always has been) and Nocturnal Animals gets the spear gun out and aims at a viable target. Unfortunately, in spite of the beauty of the chase, all it does in the end is deliver a flesh wound.