Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s follow-up to A Single Man, is a stylish, brooding, bespectacled beast that lacks subtlety but remains gripping.
You know you’re watching a Tom Ford film when the protagonist elegantly, almost erotically, takes off their chunky black glasses and brushes the temple tips against their head – lost in thought or an emotion. In fact, it’s probably the best starting point when it comes to reviewing his second film, Nocturnal Animals. An adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, about a woman whose past catches up to her in the form of her writer ex-husband’s manuscript.
Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful gallery director and owner of the finest chunky glasses in all the land. She is married to Armie Hammer’s Walker, a smooth businessman who is frequently out of town on business. However, beneath the thin veneer of affluence (they live in a stunning gated house in the LA hills, and retain drivers and personal assistants) is a cold, depressing reality. The marriage is loveless, Walker is unfaithful on his business trips and nearly bankrupt, having to resort to selling his artwork to maintain the air of wealth. Susan’s latent unhappiness is compounded by the delivery of a manuscript, written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an unwelcome blast from the past. Susan puts on extra chunky of glasses to read it.
The manuscript itself is called ‘Nocturnal Animals’ (it’s the nickname Edward gave Susan due to her insomnia) and is dedicated to her. The novel is about Tony Hastings, a timid man who, along with his wife and daughter, on a drive down a long dark Texan highway come across a trio of violent men who run their car off the road. Tony is beaten and separated from his wife and daughter who are then brutally raped and murdered.
Staying true to Austin Wright’s novel, we ‘read’ the novel along with Susan. In fact, we read the novel as Susan. As well as playing Edward, Gyllenhaal plays Tony, allowing the film to visually explore themes of reality, fiction and the relationship between the two. Why does Susan see Edward as Tony? Why has Edward written a novel about brutal rape and murder and dedicated it to his ex-wife? As the film progresses it becomes clear that Susan and Edward parted on less than amicable terms. Is the novel a threat or a reconciliation?
Suddenly the chunky glasses take on a deeper meaning. The drama in Susan’s life seems hilariously insignificant when compared to Tony’s. She’s worried about a loveless marriage when he’s just had his wife and kids murdered. Susan’s world is cold, full of clunky, expository interactions. Like the one where she infodumps that Edward is her ex-husband, who is a writer but hasn’t written anything for a long time… until now! Tony’s world is gritty, depressing – his interactions aren’t clunky but broken, not expository but filled with sideways glances and leers.
Susan’s colleagues include Jena Malone, who wears EVEN chunkier glasses than Susan and thinks good parenting is having the latest babycam app installed on her phone. The stories of Susan’s #firstworldproblems and Tony’s contender for Worst Family Road Trip ever look so disparate, the chasm between the two so great that it’s actually inviting us, even forcing us to bridge the gap: there must, must be a connection between Susan and Tony. But what is it?
Ford lets these questions languidly float around in his dark, stylish shots, illuminated frequently only by the headlights of a car or the torch of a policeman. There’s no night time like a Tom Ford night time. Nocturnal Animals is beautifully shot, if occasionally clumsily. Susan’s monochrome, opulent world is jarringly, almost bitterly, contrasted with Tony’s increasingly desperate life surrounded by nothing but the tawny colours of detectives’ trousers and sandy roads.
Occasionally, the film’s interconnected premise forces Ford’s hand and he abandons all subtlety, hammering home that Susan, Tony and Edward are all more connected than it initially appears. But the cinematography and strong performances from the leads, as well as Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the gang’s mutton-chopped leader and Michael Sheen’s intense detective, keep the film on its creepy, uneasy track. 4/5