Director: Tom Ford
15 | 1h 57min | Drama, Thriller | 4 November 2016 (UK)
Playing London Film Festival2016
This revenge thriller hails from the director of A Single Man: fashion mogul and filmmaker Tom Ford. As you’d expect from an artist famed for his tasteful visual style, Nocturnal Animals – his adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan – looks gorgeous, with a colour palette full of velvety reds, inky blacks, and crisp golds thanks to costume designer Arianne Phillips and maestro cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, amongst others. It stars Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, who look even more beautiful when captured by Ford’s camera, and do sterling work in their roels. The film around pulses with a more lurid, nasty vibe though; viewers should not go in expecting the quiet, sombre elegance of A Single Man. This is a study of bitter, sorry people hurting each other using ancient memories, propelled like bullets via the power of fiction.
Adams and Gyllenhaal play Susan and Edward, Susan being a glamorous and seemingly successful Los Angeles gallery director in the present day, who divorced struggling novelist Edward – who was her college sweetheart and to whom she got briefly married during their time studying – some years ago. Susan is presented to us very quickly as a (somewhat cliched) figure of sophistication that nevertheless is concealing a deep unhappiness. It is clear from the stiff poise she takes with her distracted businessman husband Walker (Armie Hammer) in their kitchen during breakfast that their current marriage is unravelling, and indeed, he is soon announcing a sudden business excursion to New York that will ruin their weekend plans. The glossy, high-design trappings of wealth and success that infuse Susan’s postmodern bungalow only serve to emphasise the coldness of her emotional life. There is plenty to enjoy in terms of the intensity of the visuals – the ostentatious wealth, the glamorous costumes – but Ford strangely over-eggs the tone in the scenes where we see Susan’s daily existence in the art world. Her gallery and colleagues are cardboard cutouts of the most pretentious ‘dahling’ types and the work on the walls unbelievably inane. Susan’s husband’s philandering – and her semi-comedic and accidental stumbling across it – gives off the whiff of pulpy melodrama. Ford seems to want you to gag with laughter at this unreal depiction of LA’s high-culture set (just gawp at Andrea Riseborough’s chunky jewelry with Liz Taylor hairstyle and caftan). It feels like a strange approach when you consider the stately aura given off by A Single Man.
Then again, maybe this infusion of a trashy-novel tone makes more sense when you consider the way Edward brutally re-inserts himself into his former wife’s life. Unannounced, he sends her an unpublished manuscript of his latest novel one morning, and an insomnia-addled Susan (Edward used to call her a nocturnal animal when they were together) finds herself engrossed in it against her expectations. It’s a thriller about a very average man called Tony whose planned road trip with his wife and daughter goes tragically wrong when a gang of savage redneck thugs drive them off the road, mocking Tony’s refusal to stand up to them, and they ultimately kidnap his family as he lies helpless. Paralysed by fear, Tony hesitates in a moment where he might intervene. Susan’s visualisations of this revenge tale – which ends in a clumsily executed moment of vengeance after much emotional turmoil – essentially becomes a second narrative that Ford interweaves very well with the main story, capturing well via editing and sound the way a novel can grip you and blur into your real life. Michael Shannon is also captivating (as only he can be) as a character in the novel: a salty, fuck-the-rules Lieutenant with a loose cannon modus operandi that gives this strand real bite and some welcome moments of dark comedy. The West Texas setting, and the grim repercussions of Tony’s decision to seek revenge, give the impression this is something of a second-rate Cormac McCarthy novel. We never see the actual text enough to judge though.
Significantly, Susan visualises Tony as looking and sounding like Edward (Gylenhaal plays both roles), and this presumably was the intention of her ex-husband, who seems to have written the tale as a barbed, vicious comment on what he sees as her previous lack of support for his writing career and questioning of his masculinity. We see snippets of these conflicts between Susan and Edward in flashback, but only from Susan’s perspective. This raises all sorts of questions, which are complicated by the fact that Susan is fascinated by the novel, committing to it no matter how disturbing it gets. But is she supposed to identify with the victim or the perpetrator? The fact that Susan is introduced as such an unpleasant and shallow character – combined with later revelations about a particular action she took without Edward’s knowledge and the parallels drawn between her and her absurdly Nancy Reagan-esque conservative mother – raises the uncomfortable possibility that Ford wants you to sympathise with Edward, who never appears on screen in the present day to contextualise the sending of the manuscript. But Edward’s action is nasty in the extreme, the equivalent of lobbing manure through an ex-wife’s letterbox. It is a bomb thrown into Susan’s life, provoking her to ask herself if she leaches the agency of others. Maybe Ford’s intention was in fact to provoke audiences in exactly this cruel way, to swing between the poles, distracted by the trashy glory of it all. If so, this was an exercise in manipulation done with style and sensuality, though many might well find this cruel tale unsettling.