Joyce Glasser reviews Nocturnal Animals (November 4, 2016), Cert. 15, 117 min.
We think nothing of a cinematographer, editor, actor or producer trying their hand at directing, and the history of cinema is full of excellent films made by these crossover directors. But the creative director for Gucci and a fashion designer of clothes and shoes not only directing, but writing an Academy Award and BAFTA nominated feature film?
Texan born Tom Ford directed his own adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s heartbreaking novel, A Single Man and the result was a faultless thing of beauty. As Ford and the book’s central character are both gay, and Ford was, like the film’s character, an outsider when he move to Milan to turn around the fortunes of Gucci, you could say his task was easier. But what about Ford’s second feature, Nocturnal Animals, which he adapted from Austin Wright’s thriller, Tony and Susan and has cast so imaginatively, it might take you a minute to recognise the A-list stars?
Nocturnal Animals is not angrier than the quietly devastating A Single Man, but it is a lot nastier, more violent and more ambitious. And despite the garish, ugly images that great us from art gallery curator Susan Morrow’s (Amy Adams) show in the opening credits, and the ‘No Country for Old Men’ sadistic violence in her ex-husband Edward Sheffield’s (Jake Gyllenhaal’s) unpublished novel, it is just as gorgeous. Ford’s images, sets (he trained as an architect), and, of course, his attention grabbing costumes are heightened in their symbolic value by Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (Atonement, The Avengers)
Nocturnal Animals is a story-within-a story, interweaving two completely different stories – or are they? Susan, who comes from a wealthy, conservative family, falls in love with struggling writer Edward Sheffield and is thrillingly defiant when her fabulously overdressed and coiffed mother (an inspired Laura Linney) meets Susan for lunch in one of the best scenes in a film full of them. Mommie Dearest warns Susan, ‘don’t do this. You are strong and Edward is weak. He has no ambition…The things you love about him now are the things you’ll hate about him.’ Susan protests vehemently when her mother points out, ‘you are exactly like me.’
Returning from the aforementioned art show, Susan might dare to wonder if her mother was right. It is twenty years ago now that she ditched Edward, having lost faith in him. She admits that she love him but is unhappy as she needs a more structured life.’ Upset, he retorts, ‘When people love each other they work it out.’
Does she regret throwing away her husband like a disposable appliance? We learn that, twenty years on and financially successful, Susan is unhappy, unfulfilled and has trouble sleeping. She also finds evidence that her second husband, the impeccably dressed businessman Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer), who did not attend her show at the gallery, is having an affair. At work, she musingly asks her assistant: ‘Do you ever feel like your life hasn’t turned out the way you wanted?’
When she returns to her spacious minimalist, glass house, she receives a package and, ominously, cuts her finger opening it. Even her mother might not summon a maid to tend to the minor injury. In a Tom Ford film, nothing, from the painting that spells out the word ‘Revenge’ on the gallery wall to this paper cut, lacks significance.
In the context of the story, you can’t help but think of Rod Stewart’s song, The First Cut is the Deepest.’
And as though on cue, when Susan opens the package it is the manuscript of a book Edward has dedicated to her, entitled, Nocturnal Animals. But the book’s violent plot, which Susan imagines with Edward (Gyllenhaal – superb again) as Tony Hastings pitted against the book’s psychopath, Ray (Aaron-Taylor Johnson, terrifying), is hardly a cure for her insomnia. Life hasn’t turned out as Tony and his family expected it, let alone their holiday. Ray and his two sidekicks, all high on drugs, have high jacked his car on a deserted Texan motorway, terrorising Tony and his family before kidnapping his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber).
The book might not be a cure for insomnia, but in Ford’s hands, it is an excuse to give the immensely talented (and, nowadays, omnipotent) actor Michael Shannon a detective role to rival Jeff Bridges’ in Hell or High Water, released earlier this year. Detective Bobby Andes is hard to read and at times you have to wonder whether he is real. Andes is not just a ‘rogue’ detective when his boss downgrades the case and it looks like justice will not be served. He tears up the rule book and has nothing to lose as he is dying of cancer.Tony transforms from victim, to a vengeful deputy to Detective Andes who leads him to the only place, perhaps, where Tony will find peace.
Though dedicated to Susan, the manuscript isn’t a love letter and, riveting as the story is, it might only confirm Susan’s belief that he had no future as a writer. Who will want to read such a relentlessly sadistic and dark novel – one that will give women nightmares? But something, and not only the thought of her unfaithful husband, prompts Susan to meet Edward for a drink. It is in an elegant restaurant far from the Texan wilderness, with Susan dressed to the nines, that Ford delivers his most crushing blow.
You can watch the film trailer here: