Full-time fashion designer and part-time filmmaker Tom Ford has taken seven years to follow up his directorial debut, A Single Man (2009), with Nocturnal Animals, his adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan.
After stunning title sequences, we find Susan (Amy Adams) sitting silently at the opening night of an exhibition at her LA Art Gallery. She is as disconnected from the chattering attendees as they are from the naked obese human installations scattered across the floor. While her lifestyle is clearly lavish, Susan’s eyes are sad, and when we meet her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) the next morning, we get a hint of why. He missed the opening because he was working late, which of course is movie code for something different entirely. As Susan laments Hutton returning to New York for yet another weekend of ‘work’, she receives in the mail a copy of a novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she hasn’t seen for nineteen years. The camera lingers on her finger as she traces over the dedication to her; it seems that some feelings may linger.
Susan begins to read the novel and as we see her visualisation of the story, the movie within the movie begins. Tony (with the face of Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber), drive along a West Texas highway at night. Before long, they find trouble with some locals. The contrast between the secure solitude of Susan’s LA reading nooks and the open, lonely roads of Texas could not be clearer, and the similarities between Susan and Laura are equally as obvious.
The performances are excellent all around. Amy Adams has to do much of the heavy lifting, and despite sharing less screen time with other humans than she did in The Muppets movie, she provides the emotional anchor required to care about the other characters. Jake Gyllenhaal gets two chances to impress. And even if you are initially concerned over his ability to sell the meekness of the Tony role, his performance as the idealist dreamer Edward should remind you that his Oscar nomination came from Brokeback Mountain, and it may be that he is a leading man whose feminine side is most compelling.
Despite knowing it is only a novel within a movie, the tension within the fiction is real, thanks largely to the twitchy menace of Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray, the ringleader of the Texan thugs. It’s not long before the action there takes precedence over the LA story, and with the arrival of Michael Shannon, as the thin-lipped lawman Bobby Andes, the crime-noir credentials of Nocturnal Animals are cemented. Despite his stern exterior, Shannon brings a welcome cheekiness to his role that offsets the surrounding angst.
When Susan starts to recall her time with Edward, the three layers of story threaten to confuse, but director Ford provides enough visual cues to silently remind us where we are. Things start to heat up when each of the storylines begin to inform the others, and when Susan sees her own words coming back to her on the page, she worries that the violent twists in the story are a threat to her. The mystery for viewers is to determine whether it is really a threat, a long love letter to an old flame, or perhaps a different kind of note entirely.
Among the meticulous setups and careful cutting (editor Joan Sobel deserves a mention for maintaining cohesion), there is still time to poke fun. In a world that Ford must know well, the ridiculous look and lifestyles of the artistic elite are parodied outrageously in cameos by Michael Sheen and Jena Malone, and young Susan herself is at pains to point out that she is not creative, yet later in life is comfortable to act as a gatekeeper for those that are.
Ford resists the temptation to micro manage and leaves the clothes to costume designers, but his avant-garde fingerprints are all over the staging. The filmmaker provides striking visuals, a strong sense of style permeating every scene.
Having a large part of a movie play out as a story within a story is an ambitious proposition, but strong performances and confident filmmaking ensure an intriguing, coherent narrative is on offer. Nocturnal Animals is a remarkably sophisticated effort from Ford that elevates what could have been a pulpy premise with literary ideals and provides much to ponder without ever becoming an indecipherable Lynchian puzzle.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10