Milo Garner reviews Tom Ford’s second outing, Nocturnal Animals.
Coming seven years after his debut, Nocturnal Animals is fashion designer-cum-director Tom Ford’s sophomore outing, an adaption of the 1993 novel Tony and Susan. It’s a film about love, pain, betrayal, and, most importantly, revenge. It’s a film appropriately dripping with style given Ford’s personal history – unfortunately, it is only skin deep.
The film opens well, the audience are greeted with gargantuan naked women dancing to the camera, some holding small American flags, with the background a Twin Peaks-like red curtain. In fact, the entire sequence has nods to Lynch, and it is in moments like this that the film truly excels – pure visuals, the less explained the better. Shortly after this the main conceit of the film is introduced – a manuscript arrives at the home of Susan (Amy Adams) written by an estranged ex-husband, titled after a nickname he had for her, a ‘nocturnal animal’. Her current situation is less than ideal: despite seeming wealthy her and her business-like husband are apparently in dire straits economically, and though personally successful, Susan is a gallery owner with little confidence in her own ability. With her husband on a business trip, Susan is left to read the manuscript and ruminate on her past.
Therein is the core of the film – as Susan reads, she acts as a frame for the narrative as Ford takes us into the manuscript. Here we follow the story of Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his family, who are assaulted by redneck villains on a Texas road, and his resulting plot for vengeance against those who wronged him. It should be noted that Tony, the real-life ex-husband of Susan, is played by the same actor as Edward (if only seen in flashback) and this is part of the major flaw that sinks Nocturnal Animals, its utter lack of subtlety. Flipping back from the fictional story to Susan’s real-life doings, Ford seems to revel in matched shots and audio cues that link the two together, as if the inherent message – that the book is a metaphor for the pain Tony felt in being divorced – was not obvious enough. Many of these cuts are beautifully executed, it must be said, but they hold a pretension not owed. Ford doesn’t leave it there, however, and ensures even more blatant symbolism fills every frame. For example, Susan notices that in her office building is hung a massive artwork with the printed word ‘REVENGE’. What could it mean? Or at an early point in the film Tony notes how Susan acts like her mother, then this theme is later reprised in a scene in which Susan does indeed act like her mother, but rather than leaving that for the audience to silently acknowledge, Tony literally has to say it. These are all indicative of a wider issue, that a film so conscious of being intelligent and stylish is in fact rather obvious and garish. There’s no denying that the realization of these symbols is superb – Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography beautifully frames the very detailed sets without error – but the deeper meaning is seriously lacking.
Another related issue is with the frame narrative, and how the supposedly compelling story-within-a-story simply isn’t. The story of Edward hunting down some redneck criminals with the help of an old, cranky Texan Sheriff (Michael Shannon) isn’t exactly dull, but it also isn’t all that interesting. It is instead a very simple revenge story only lifted by some slight characterization, but any of this lift is lost due to its incredulity. This is displayed in a scene where two suspects are cuffed and captured in a secluded locale, but for a reason not fully explained the Sheriff decides to uncuff them before having a poorly timed coughing fit. Of course, they escape; this is one of many such strange occurrences in Edward’s story whereby actions are not fully explained. It’s not a good sign that I was wondering if Ford was trying to evoke that Tony was not so great a writer by making this internal story clumsy and unconvincing. This idea is actually supported by the film, which at a few points implies Tony was somewhat of a failure, at least in the past. But it cannot be maintained as an ‘excuse’, so to speak, for two reasons. Firstly, the fact that Susan herself seems very moved and effected by the story, and secondly, because so much of the film’s runlength is devoted to it. Displaying poor writing visually is one thing, but if that poor writing makes up most of the script – that in itself is poor writing.
But as I have suggested, the film isn’t a complete failure. The acting talent, for example, all nail their roles. Adams, if burdened with a character who isn’t particularly interesting, manages to evoke Susan’s general demeanour very effectively, and Gyllenhaal’s Tony/Edward manages meek without being totally pathetic, a tentative balance. Shannon, of course, steals every frame he’s in. Despite being an auxiliary character, and an archetype we’ve seen many times before, Shannon injects some life into the Texan Sheriff that only a master of the craft is capable of doing; by the end of the film very little is revealed about his character, but we feel very much as if we know him. As already mentioned, the look of the film is also excellent. The use of colour, matched shots, and balanced framing make for some visually exciting scenes and it feels almost as if the film would be better muted. I say almost as the score (by Abel Korzeniowski), if not particularly complex, is very evocative of the old fashioned thriller to which this film owes much. Comparisons to Bernard Herrman are warranted, and that is high praise in the world of movie music.
In its aims, Nocturnal Animals is a failure. Style over substance doesn’t have to be bad, in fact Ford himself proves that with his exceptional debut A Single Man, but style masquerading as substance – that is more difficult to justify. Of course the style in this film is notable, be it the character fashion, set design, or direction, but it doesn’t make up for a weak central narrative, and distractingly glaring symbolism. Not a total disaster by any stretch, but disappointing.
Featured Image: Bagogames