Nocturnal AnimalsNovember 11, 2016
If one had to nominate the most enviable person in the world today it would be hard to go past fashion designer, Tom Ford. Charming, handsome and successful, adored by the rich and powerful. It hardly seems fair that Ford should also possess an incredible talent as a writer and director. What does one do to achieve this kind of karma?
Seven years ago Ford surprised everyone with his debut feature, A Single Man – an accomplished portrait of a gay university lecturer during that benighted era when students took courses in English Literature rather than Queer Studies.
A Single Man was a good but rather limited film. It’s taken a while for Ford to get around to movie number two, but he has he delivered big-time. Nocturnal Animals, a contemporary film noir based on a cult novel by American writer, Austin Wright, is not the work of a dilettante, but a master.
One could speculate that the high-pressured world of fashion – which has claimed its share of celebrity suicides – is the ideal preparation for the stresses of filmmaking, but this doesn’t explain Ford’s ear for dialogue, or his skill at interweaving scenes that switch between past and present, fiction and reality.
Nocturnal Animals owes a debt to the director’s day job in the stylishness of the sets and costumes, and the immaculate way each shot is framed. There is also more than a hint of satire in relation to the stilted, pretentious milieux of cutting-edge art and fashion, where everyone is a character of their own invention. In a film that incorporates a revenge motif, Ford takes his own revenge on those with whom he mingles professionally.
The blowtorch is applied from the very beginning, in a jaw-dropping opening that features grotesquely fat naked women gyrating like burlesque stars. This turns out to be an art installation at an up-market Los Angeles gallery owned by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). Susan and her assistants all have that frozen, deeply unhappy air, so common among the contemporary art crowd. Go to any big vernissage and you’ll recognise the type.
We follow Susan back to her luxury residence in a gated community where her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer – destined forever to play the handsome cad), is leaving for New York to negotiate a deal that will stave off financial ruin. The estrangement between Susan and Hutton doesn’t have to be spelled out. We know he’ll soon be hooking up with a mistress while she stays at home in pampered isolation.
Distraction arrives in the shape of a heavy package sent by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t seen in 19 years. After decades of trying and failing, Edward has completed the manuscript of a novel called Nocturnal Animals. He has dedicated the book to Susan and asked her to read it.
Sitting up in bed she starts on the first chapter. In a flash we are within the fictional world, as a character called Tony Hastings, whom Susan imagines as Edward, is driving his wife and daughter through Texas in the dead of night. The idea is to make better time while the roads are deserted, but the scheme goes horribly awry when they encounter a couple of cars driven by local delinquents, who force them off the road.
For Tony and his family the story gets progressively more nightmarish, as they find themselves at the mercy of the cold-eyed group leader, Ray (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, like you’ve never seen him before).
From the novel we slip back into real time, then into the past, as Susan reflects on her life with Edward, a romantic figure whose only ambition was to write. They married for love, but separated when Susan’s worldy ambitions drove her in the opposite direction – just as her mother (Laura Linney) had predicted. Now that her second marriage is on the rocks she is thinking about Edward again, and perhaps regretting the choices she made.
When we return to the book the story has devolved into a desperate search, in which Tony is joined by local sheriff, Bobby Andes (a spine-tingling performance by Michael Shannon). The tale gets darker and more emotionally complex, as Tony feels his personal weakness, and Bobby faces up to his own mortality.
We realise that Edward’s horror narrative encapsulates his feelings over the break-up with Susan, and might well be a gambit to regain her love. Or is he merely trying to pay her back for the pain she caused him? When she and Edward first met, Susan was studying art history. Since their separation she has become successful in a world in which art is nothing more than an expensive commodity or status symbol. At the same time her actual life has fallen into a pattern of frozen, decadent ritual.
By contrast, Edward’s romanticism has taken on a savage cast. His story strips away the veneer of civilsation and forces his characters to confront the most extreme scenarios. With Susan we feel the painful artificiality of her life, and begin to understand that this work of fiction contains a deep, confronting truth.
Directed by Tom Ford
Written by Tom Ford, after a novel by Austin Wright
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Armie Hammer, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Elle Bamber, Karl Glusmah, Laura Linney
USA, rated MA 15+, 117 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 12 November, 2016