Nocturnal Animals is a spiteful little film, full of bile and petty score-settling. Beautifully styled and well-acted throughout – with a stellar cast of cameos supporting the leads – this film feels like a tragic waste of talent, a plethora of artistic skill funnelled into a project with a vacuum for a heart. The worldview here is warped. The whole thing – not just the inner story of Sheffield’s novel – feels like a sterile revenge plot, the work of an embittered soul with sadistic tendencies.
Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful but miserable art dealer, trapped in an unhappy marriage where her riches mean nothing; her life is a hollow shell. When she was young, in grad school, she was briefly married to a different man, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), and he was the true love of her life. But Susan was too greedy, too bourgeois, too much like her mother, to appreciate the creative sensitivity of a man like Edward: she wanted the trappings of a middle-class life, and didn’t support him in his artistic endeavours.
Nineteen years later, a manuscript arrives on her desk. It’s a proof copy of Edward’s novel, soon to be published. It’s dedicated to her, and it tells the tale of a couple just like them, brought to life for us on screen as Susan reads compulsively. The protagonist, Laura (Isla Fisher, styled to look exactly like Adams), is raped and murdered, along with her daughter. Clearly, Edward is still a long way from getting over Susan’s rejection of him.
It’s an ugly, mean-spirited story from start to finish, with a deep misogyny at its core. From the freak-show fat women of the opening credits to the gratuitous nastiness of Laura’s death, it’s lacking any sense of proportion – or of charm. Nor does it work as a study of the dark side of humanity; it’s all too petty and too personal for that. And it’s boring a lot of the time too, all ponderous shots of people in baths, and endless scenes where Adams gasps, startled by what she’s read, adjusts her glasses, then picks up the book again. The novel’s plot is pretty turgid too: after the initial excitement of the murders, it’s a rather dull procedural, where we know exactly whodunnit, and so do the police.
Seriously, this is a disappointing film. It looks fantastic and the cast is a dream-team by anyone’s standards (Adams and Gyllenhaal are joined by Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough, among others) but, ultimately, this just leaves a bad taste in the mouth.