For his second film, the fashion designer, writer and director Tom Ford has adapted Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. As with his first – 2009’s A Single Man – Nocturnal Animals is a stylish drama/thriller in which much weight is placed on formal elements such as the cinematography and the mise-en-scène, with many smaller decisions taken within these areas contributing to the telling of the story (in a range of ways that are at times subtle and at other times obvious). Such talk of a pronounced style – Ford would appear to have a fully-defined look and his films have a particular feel, despite the fact he is still somewhat green in filmmaking terms – instantly has many cinemagoers wondering whether it has been achieved at the expense of substance – as if it’s impossible for both to co-exist within a movie in 2016. Suspicion is exacerbated in Ford’s case by the fact that he’s a man who has come into the film world having gained success and fame in a supposedly-vacuous industry where shimmering, stunning appearance is often seen as the be all and end all. So is there more to Nocturnal Animals than a lavish look?
Ford’s sophomore effort relies heavily on a film-within-a-film structure, though here the device is employed in a far more jarring fashion than, say, in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation or even Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, two recent(ish) efforts by other directors in which the lines separating a character’s individual experience of reality and fiction are blurred and harder to discern. Here we have a very clearly-defined ‘reality’, and a very clearly-defined ‘fictional’ sub-narrative, and although there’s plenty of effort made to bleed the two together through the editing (and a little of the production design), ultimately the two threads are distinct and kept apart; only in one instance does a character from the story-within-a-story make his way – briefly and startlingly – into the ‘real’ world.
After a fleshy, carnivalesque opening sequence, we meet troubled LA art gallerist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), whose life appears to have taken a downturn: she spends her time in a number of cold, high-end modernist spaces – from a glassy, overwhelmingly-large Hollywood Hills home, which seems larger than it probably is because she’s the only resident for most of the film, to bright, sterile and minimally-decorated meeting rooms and galleries; she has money problems; she finds that her work is unfulfilling; her relationships with colleagues and friends seem to be built upon fakeness – it all veers between air kisses and The Neon Demon-like snarkiness (Jena Malone, one of the stars of that film, even shows up here as a rather unlikeable gallery curator); and her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is disinterested in Susan’s life and is sleeping with at least one other woman. Out of nowhere Susan receives a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield, a writer played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who we see in flashbacks (where, it must be said, Susan generally looks a lot happier). Rather ominously the manuscript gives her a paper cut, instantly drawing blood.
This is Edward’s first novel, a pulpy thriller that is based, very loosely, on personal experience. It’s called Nocturnal Animals – a term Susan used to use when they were together. As Susan reads it – alone, late at night – Ford dramatises her interpretation/imagination of the novel, and this forms the film-within-a-film. Here, Gyllenhaal takes on a second role as Tony Hastings, a man whose family is terrorised one night by a trio of rednecks while driving in West Texas: his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) suffering the most. Edward has clearly based the character of ‘Laura’ on Susan, and this, coupled with the tension of the story, drive Susan to read on: after a devastating attack on the Hastings family, Tony enlists the help of a chain-smoking detective named Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, on fine form yet again) to track down the perpetrators and exact revenge.
As we and Susan delve further into the novel it becomes obvious that the whole work is itself a thinly-veiled act of revenge on Edward’s part, designed to punish Susan for their break-up and related incidents, all of which took place 20 years earlier. The text contains ‘trigger’ phrases and coded messages that are designed to play upon Susan’s own fears and insecurities, such as her apparent desire not to turn into her mother, another woman who has lived a sad, unfulfilled life. These are gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks that show Edward and Susan as a younger couple, though it takes Ford quite a while to get to them. Gradually we begin to understand Susan’s unhappiness, and as she reads the novel we begin to realise that it is little more than a sustained attack on her fragile psyche by a still-embittered Edward.
Reading the paragraphs above back, I’m aware that the narrative isn’t particularly straightforward, and if you haven’t actually seen the film I’m sorry if I haven’t given an easily-digestible synopsis. What Ford and his crew do well, though, is make everything clear as you are watching: the sleekness of ‘real’ LA and the Christmassy romance of Edward and Susan’s flashback scenes together contrast with one another, and also with the dusty, wide-open spaces of ‘fictional’ Texas; hanging wall art and decorations delineate each place and time; and Ford’s editor Joan Sobel does a terrific job in terms of transitioning between the three, fast cutting between images of bodies that are in similar positions, or making sure that we move from one part of the story to another while focusing on objects of the same colour (this is a film where pretty much everything you see that is red appears to have been put there by Ford as some kind of clue or link between narrative periods).
Despite all of the effort made the difference between the pulpy thriller and the psychological drama is a little strong, and whenever the action shifts from Shannon and Gyllenhaal to the subtler, Susan-led drama the film seems to lose some of its forward momentum (the third thread, Edward’s earlier romance with Susan, is by definitely minor compared to the others, though illuminating nonetheless). The initial Texas-set scene in particular – where the Hastings family is attacked on a near-deserted road at night – marks the high point of the film, and sadly nothing quite gets near to that afterwards. Here in Texas, Gyllenhaal’s performance of a man who is unable to protect his family and who subsequently wanders around like an empty shell is good, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson as his chief tormentor and Shannon as the lawman with no particular desire to follow the law add entertaining support. The story is all macho bluster: violence begats violence and it’s characterised by guns, psychopaths and revenge. Adams is perfectly suited to Susan’s contrasting section, which is comparably free of serious incident, but requires the actress to slowly reveal her inner torment and sadness; this she achieves with real aplomb, but the overall film itself is a mixed bag.