Fashion designer turned film director (and writer/producer) Tom Ford returns to the big screen seven years after his superb debut feature, A Single Man. His new film, Nocturnal Animals is based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright.
If there’s one aspect of filmmaking Ford excels, it’s set and production design. Obviously, these areas have their experts, just as a composer writes the score and the editor cuts film and adds cohesion to the story, but this film and this story, is fundamentally Ford’s. He has co-produced, written and directed this picture and it’s clear his input in other areas is there for all to see.
Over the opening credits are a series of images that can only be described as a grotesque carnival of flesh. And I felt it’s a misjudged opening. It may well be that the women on show are noticeably happier and more comfortable in themselves than any of the main characters could ever be, despite their beauty, success and wealth. Irrespective of this slip into Lynchian-territory – which isn’t normally a bad thing – it didn’t deter me from my enjoyment of the film. Well, perhaps enjoyment is the wrong word. If you’ve seen it, you’ll understand. If you haven’t; brace yourself. It’s a hard film to ‘enjoy’ but an easy one to admire.
We open in Los Angeles. Susan (Amy Adams) is a successful art gallery owner. Despite her wealth – most of which derives from her husband, the “very charming” Walker’s (Armie Hammer) business dealings – Susan is deeply unhappy and her marriage is a strained one at best. Out of the blue, she receives an unpublished manuscript from her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a sweet and sensitive Texan who had his heart broken by Susan not once, but twice.
When alone, Susan begins to read Edward’s novel and Ford allows us to see for ourselves just what is inside the mind of her heartbroken ex-spouse. It’s not a glossy-surfaced LA novel. Not the world Susan currently inhabits. It’s in remote rural Texas where Tony Hastings, his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) take a road trip and are terrorised by a gang of locals, led by Ray (a barely recognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson). As Susan begins to read, she imagines Edward, as Tony. Also in this narrative is a laconic, chain-smoking lawman, Detective Bobby Andes, wonderfully portrayed by Michael Shannon who is quickly becoming a much sought after character actor.
The third strand of this complex narrative web is one of happier (at first) times that sees Edward and Susan as young lovers. Idealistic, certainly naïve, but full of life and promise. As the narrative shifts we soon realise how things will eventually pan out, but it’s a welcome change from the gritty, rural Texas and the soulless façade of Los Angeles.
The cast is extraordinary. Adams doesn’t seem to do a great deal of ‘acting’ as such, but her subtle touches bring depth to her lifeless character. Her facial movements demonstrate a range of feelings and emotions so that without saying much at all, we completely share her fear and anxieties as she delves deeper into Edward’s novel. Gyllenhaal too is on fine form. He has grown as an actor in recent years taking on challenging roles in Enemy (2013) and Nightcrawler (2014) to name but a couple. Shannon and Taylor-Johnson are both superb as support, the latter making this reviewer extremely uncomfortable during the Texas story.
But aside from the wonderful performances, the real plaudits must go to three members of the crew: composer Abel Korzeniowski, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and editor Joan Sobel.
Korzeniowski has written a score that heralds back to the Golden Age of Hollywood. An old-fashioned number amid such a contemporary looking picture. It’s like something you would have heard in the old romantic melodramas of yesteryear. And as the settings change, so does the music, brooding and menacing as we shift narratives and feel our way around in the Texas country dark.
McGarvey (again, particularly within the Texas narrative) employs intrusive, up-close camera work and heavy lighting. It reminded me of the Coen Brothers debut feature Blood Simple (1984)
But Joan Sobel, I feel does the hardest job and makes these three complex and inter-weaving narratives fit together seamlessly. Not only does she add cohesion to the story but she allows it to flow by a series of well executed cuts and dissolves. It is often said you don’t notice good editing, only the bad; when something looks wrong, but in this case, it isn’t true and she deserves high praise indeed.
With a Kubrickian approach to detail, a style Fincher would be proud of, and the grittiness of Joel and Ethan Coen, Nocturnal Animals may be style over substance. Personally, I believe it is more than that and there is substance and story-telling in abundance. Whatever your views, mine are clear and as with Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016), style, whether it be over substance or not, doesn’t have to be a bad thing.