There was considerable scepticism when the former creative director of Gucci decided to work concurrently in the worlds of fashion and filmmaking. But designer-turned-director Tom Ford successfully dispelled any suggestion of dilettantism with his debut feature, A Single Man (2009), in which he married visual elegance with psychological weight in the manner of grand stylists like Losey and Visconti to create a sophisticated study of loss and loneliness. It has taken Ford seven years to bring us his sophomore offering, which has met with the same level of festival circuit approbation as his debut—he picked the Grand Jury Prize and receiving a ten-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival.
Perhaps in response to a critical strain which seeks to frame Ford as a purveyor of well-dressed but empty composition, Nocturnal Animals is a conspicuous departure from A Single Man, both in terms of tone and structure, with Ford stretching himself as a writer. Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals has a story-within-a-story structure wherein Susan (Amy Adams), a gallery owner who leads a life of opulent monotony, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The manuscript is a novel Edward has written called Nocturnal Animals, a violent revenge thriller which tells the harrowing story of Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his family. Susan is deeply affected by the manuscript, and is taken back to the steady dissolution of her and Edward’s marriage twenty years earlier, intermingled with scenes from the novel.
Alfred Hitchcock has been invoked in the discussion of Nocturnal Animals, and Hitch’s fingerprints are certainly evident, right down to Abel Korzeniowski’s Bernard Herrmann-esque orchestrations. But the overall effect is rather more like Brian De Palma doing Hitchcock, bringing a sensuous tenor to the classic suspense tropes, with broad strokes of Lynchian psycho-noir and the sweaty Southern Gothic claustrophobia of Tracy Letts thrown into the mix. DP Seamus McGarvey does a great job of contrasting the stylish sterility of Los Angeles and the stifling stillness of rural West Texas, drawing out the dread and menace in both. Though one story informs the other, the dramatisation of the novel is the more compelling story, with the effect that one is waiting to return to it—as good as Adams is, she essentially reprises the outwardly accomplished but inwardly adrift role played by Colin Firth in A Single Man. One senses this may become a thematic trope in Ford’s canon.
What cannot be denied is the fact that Ford knows how to compose a shot. He also has an unerring knack for casting. Adams is called upon to deliver some of the more cumbersome dialogue, but is able to transcend this and convey so much of Susan’s inner turmoil with her eyes. Gyllenhaal channels Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs (1971) as the reasonable man driven to extremes, while Michael Shannon is in scene-stealing form as a hard-bitten detective—it is a performance which stands alongside Jeff Bridges’ similar turn in Hell or High Water (2016), and should put him in the Oscar discussion. In the supporting roles, Aaron-Taylor Johnson is a chillingly convincing backwoods maniac, while Laura Linney gives a tremendous single-scene performance as Susan’s overbearing mother.
Ford’s ability to largely finance his own films is a mixed blessing. For better or worse, we get his untrammelled vision, with the odd clunky line of dialogue that worked in the context of the novel, and broad characterisation which may not have made it through gruelling rounds of studio script notes. Behind the camera, Ford sometimes mistakes motion for meaning, but on the whole he meets the demands of the material, keeping the fastidious framing to a minimum and allowing a little grit to slip into the glossy veneers. Ford’s screenplay addresses loyalty, retribution, regret, and the fictionalised self, though less successful is his critique on the pernicious influence of consumerism, which is a bit rich coming from the owner of a $1 billion fashion empire. Perhaps this is a mea culpa, but the irony is striking as Ford lambasts a world of crippling surfeit. Though not without its inconsistencies, Nocturnal Animals is a work which proves Ford is capable of getting down in the dirt.
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