Not content with dressing Oscar winners, Tom Ford is rapidly on his way to becoming one. His second film is an ambitious Pandora’s box of savage beauty. A story-within-a-story, with more than a nod to Hitchcock and Lynch, Nocturnal Animals is a thrilling close to the seventh edition of the American Film Festival.
The less you know, the better, but the basic premise features Amy Adams as Susan, an LA art gallery owner who is in an icy cool marriage to Armie Hammer’s financier. As he is about to leave for New York on business, she receives a package, the latest novel by her ex-husband. It’s a markedly different work to what he was writing when they were together, detailing a husband and wife taking their daughter on an innocuous cross-country trip. From there, the film splits on to three planes: the present-day, with Susan dealing with her emotions over the book and her previous life; her past with the writer, and the fictional father as he attempts to deal with the precarious situation his family finds themselves in.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays both the ex, Edward, and the central character in the novel. Is there a link between the two? Are we meant to glean something from the novel’s visceral tale and the way that the writer’s relationship ended? As the story progresses and we see Susan’s response to the novel, it’s also possible to believe that we are viewing the events of the story through her own perspective. Even the visual elements, or sounds, across the three strands seem to bleed into each other – the way a naked body lies in repose or a sudden bang.
Ford’s accomplished first film, A Single Man (2009), simmered with repressed emotion as it detailed a college lecturer’s grief at the death of his lover. The film’s palette was muted in order to underpin the brief moments when George (Colin Firth) experienced momentary respite from pain, such as the scent of a flower which brings colour flooding onto the screen.
Nocturnal Animals, by contrast, is florid from the get-go. The title sequence wouldn’t look out of place in Mulholland Drive (2001) – a baroque exhibition of naked women. Then the film shifts between the cool world of the LA art scene and the visceral events of the novel, interspersed with the flickering of romance when Susan and Edward meet again on a street in New York – they had previously been family friends back in Texas. As the tale in the novel grows darker, so does Susan’s memories of how that relationship developed.
Ford plays a high-wire act. The present-day world borders on cliché in its presentation of LA’s beau monde, the past is the stuff of Hollywood romantic dramas and the fictional story comes straight from a pulp crime novel, replete with stoic cop (Michael Shannon) and malevolent con (a superb Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It works because of the way the three strands are woven together and because the characters aren’t Hollywood heroic or magically rise above their predicament. Whether Ford is telling us something about the nature of movie fiction – or fiction generally – and its relationship to reality is down to how each audience member responds to the film. But while it plays, it’s one hell of a ride.
Ian Haydn Smith