You have to assume no director wants audiences walking out of his movie thinking that he "hates women." But fashion designer Tom Ford's approach to Nocturnal Animals, his second film, makes you think that perhaps this one did.
[Editor's note: Spoilers ahead for Nocturnal Animals.]
Nocturnal Animals certainly has a lot going on. It has Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, a wealthy woman and gallerina with rather severe taste in lipstick shades. It has Armie Hammer as Hutton Morrow, her hunky but disinterested husband. The two of them live in a fabulous Los Angeles mansion with a staff of attendants, but all the help in the world can't stop Hutton from flying off to New York to cheat on Susan.
One weekend while Hutton is away, Susan received a package from her ex-husband, author Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). He's written a grisly novel, titled Nocturnal Animals (get it?), in reference to how he used to call her a nocturnal animal. With pet names like that, you might be floored as to how they ever got divorced, but split they did when Susan realized Edward was never going to give her what she wanted in life.
Nocturnal Animals, the movie, tells three stories: the story of Susan in the present day, anguished as she reads the novel; the eponymous novel itself, depicting an alternate universe where Gyllenhaal plays Tony Hastings, a man seeking revenge for his raped and killed wife and daughter; and Susan's memories of her relationship with Edward.
If this strikes you as a lot, that's because it is. Nocturnal Animals is excess dressed up in beautiful clothes and portrayed by beautiful people — it's all surface, no substance.
Yet the core of Ford's movie is deeply ugly. He opens the film with an exhibition at Susan's gallery, in which several overweight, naked women dance in the name of art. There's no love in his camera lens for them; he makes them the film's first cruel joke. 'Look at how unattractive this tableau is,' he seems to be saying. Judging from what we learn of Susan later, her choosing this exhibit makes no sense. It exists because Ford (who has been criticized repeatedly for his use of naked women in his fashion marketing) wanted it to.
But that's just a preview of how much Ford hates Susan. Edward crafts his novel as a form of revenge, a disturbing read that keeps Susan up at night. He teases her with the chance of being able to leave Hutton and restart her life with him, but ultimately leaves her hanging in the film's final act of malice.
What did Susan do to deserve this, you might ask? She ends her relationship with Edward, yes, but for hardly unreasonable motivations. Instead, Edward (and Ford by extension as writer and director) seems to be punishing her for choosing to have an abortion. The child was Edward's, and her choice is offered up as evidence as to why this somewhat chilly, but ultimately decent, woman is deserving of such a dark revenge plot.
But if you take this seriously, Ford's film says, you're the one at fault. "Enjoy the absurdity of our world," says Carlos Holt (Michael Sheen), a throwaway character and friend of Susan's at the beginning of the film. To take any of this seriously is to fall victim to Nocturnal Animals' own plot. You're the fool for doing so.
Ford seemingly has no time for the people in his audiences who don't "get it." That is, to put it bluntly, bullshit. Nocturnal Animals isn't American Psycho. It's not bright, sharp, biting satire. It's hatred disguised as a trifle of a film. There's nothing more there to 'get' — it is exactly what it appears on the surface. This movie is unimaginably hard on Susan for making a choice to abort, and its impressive craft is no excuse for its loathing, angry script.
Very few works of art aren't even worth consideration; the most seemingly vapid works can often have the most to offer. But Nocturnal Animals isn't worth the time. Aside from a really great Michael Shannon performance in the fictional universe story, and one bit of clever casting involving Isla Fisher, there's nothing to recommend seeing it. There are plenty of great films out right now — one even starring Amy Adams — that are much more worth any moviegoer's time.