Tom Ford is known for making incredibly beautiful things, and his first foray into film-making, A Single Man, managed to combine style and substance to great acclaim. His second feature, Nocturnal Animals, which premiered at the London Film Festival, takes his work in a slightly different direction, adding a somewhat grisly, high-stakes thriller element that contrasts with the beautiful world of a prosperous gallery owner played by Amy Adams.
Insomniac Susan is a rich and renowned art dealer whose latest blockbuster show opens the film – which we see in the opening credits as a warped homage to Bond’s gyrating ladies. But despite her success it’s clear her outwardly perfect life has plenty of cracks; her handsome second husband has failed to attend the opening and rushes off on yet another “business” trip with his mistress, while a growing sense of unreality and emptiness begins to trouble Susan’s quieter moments. Out of the blue her novelist ex-husband sends her the manuscript of his first book, dedicated to her and fulfilling the potential she saw in him during their brief student marriage. But as Susan begins to read, the disturbing morality tale Edward has sent her takes hold and changes her perspective on the past.
Ford’s film is all about the rottenness that exists beneath the surface of things and how people can never escape the consequences of bad choices. In many ways it is a classic revenge tale that takes the audience into three worlds; the first dealing with Susan’s current life, the second the world of the book, and finally Susan’s memories of her first marriage evoked by the story she encounters. Complex as it sounds Ford interweaves the narratives convincingly, creating a film that’s not just a beautiful object but one that aptly reflects its subject matter by being tense, dark and uncomfortable beneath the surface.
Multi-narrative films can be difficult to pull-off but when it works well, such as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, each piece acts like a jigsaw adding depth and meaning to the rest. Here, our protagonist is Susan who, much like the central character in A Single Man, lives in one of those stunning one level, waterside houses that are all glass and extensive space, the type of home that speaks volumes about the lifestyle of the people inside. We also see her in her perfect white-walled gallery, an almost antiseptic environment that is all about surface suggestions of achievement but never seem to actually touch Susan’s inner life.
Amy Adams is superb as Susan, who, with surprisingly little dialogue, is required to convey a detachment from her day-to-day life, a lack of meaning and growing wish to reconnect with an earlier time of purer emotion. Heavily made up as a career woman, as we flit between the present and her student past, we see her former more honest appearance, understanding instantly, as Ford would like us to, that she has become someone that only exists on the surface of herself rather than the creative thinker she once was. The arrival of Edward’s book and her shocked, fearful and perplexed reactions to it are something that wakes her up to herself, which Adams conveys effortlessly.
The second narrative dramatises the plot of the novel Susan is reading about a family forced off the road by some reckless young men while driving along a lonely stretch of Texan desert one night. It’s a classic suspense opener as the family – husband Tony (Jake Gyllehaal), wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) – discuss the decision to drive all night to their destination rather than break the journey. Soon they are engaged in a frightening confrontation with another car that harasses them for some miles before forcing them to pull over. The way in which Ford controls the tension here is fascinating, and has much in common with Spielberg’s first movie Duel, in which a faceless lorry driver pursues and attempts to kill a car driver for no apparent reason.
The tension only ratchets up from here on as the family are tormented further by their assailants before a series of dreadful crimes take place. This story, which eventually stretches over several months becomes an almost Shakespearean revenge tragedy in which the inevitability of destruction for all in involved is palpable. Cutting tightly between this and Susan’s reactions, often to a throbbing beat, creates strong associations between the two and it’s no coincidence that Edward’s female characters and his ex-wife have the same shade of red hair.
Jake Gyllenhaal is very affecting as a man set on an unexpected path after a random encounter that changes his life irreparably. Tony’s initial devastation grows into an anxiety for justice that eventually curdles into a thirst for brutal revenge at any cost, which Gyllenhaal convincingly plays. But what makes this section so engaging is the dangerous unpredictability of Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray, who leads the gang of attackers. Ray is essentially your worst nightmare, someone who initially appears outwardly helpful but with an overconfidence brimming with treacherous intent. He is absolutely in control of every situation and orchestrates the separation of the family with cold-hearted perfection. Remorseless, calculating and even proud of his crimes, Taylor-Johnson’s performance is one of the best portrayals of mercenary mercilessness you’ll see this year.
Gyllenhaal’s weakness as Tony is contrasted with a few interspersed scenes as his ‘real-life’ alter-ego Edward whose young relationship with Susan contrasts, in her mind at least, with the complicated and sullied world she now lives in with the man she left him for. Here Gyllenhaal brings a freshness and ardent youth to Edward’s early dreams to be a novelist, while we get the first hints that he doesn’t deal well with criticism. Ford doesn’t linger too long on these sections but these fragments of memory are just enough to reveal Susan’s mind.
This hankering for simpler, purer times pervades the film and while the novel sections focus on the cost of revenge, it serves to reopen Susan’s mind about her past and the choices she made. But Ford also feeds this through the movie in other ways, particularly in one of the film’s wonderfully comic scenes in the gallery as Susan, facing a woman on her team with ridiculous plastic surgery, talks about a less-is-more ethos, a biting satire of the world Ford sees around him.
Much like A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals is then a film about loss of self, about hankering for a happier time and the inability to ever go back. Ford handles the transition between stories with great confidence, nicely adding to the escalating tension and drama. The storytelling is somewhat linear and for the most part it goes where you expect it to, but Ford creates investment in his leads – and despite the crime story being a meta fiction within a fiction – the rising intensity and the contrast of sleek and gritty styles keep the audience’s attention nonetheless. Nocturnal Animals is not a perfect film, but it is a masterclass in taking a fairly straightforward plot and creating a suspenseful, sleek, beautiful, dark and gripping experience.
Nocturnal Animals was premiered at the London Film Festival and is released nationwide on 4 November in the UK and 18th November – 9 December in the US. More reviews from the Festival will follow as films as released in cinemas.
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