Between memory and truth
Tom Ford made his name as a fashion designer and creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, so when he released his 2009 directorial debut A Single Man, it was hard to tell if Ford was a cinematic devotee or a dilettante. It didn’t help that the film was eminently tasteful and immaculately appointed, as much designed as directed, the sort of bloodless actors’ showcase created to court awards voters. The film’s deliberately old-fashioned, perfectly coiffed and creased exquisiteness felt strangely grubby.
Seven years later, Ford delivers his follow-up film Nocturnal Animals, directing, co-producing and adapting Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan for the screen, and it finally feels like he means business. The storytelling is both more refined and more brutishly personal, and the film strikes a balance between inscrutability and accessibility, between David Lynch-ian art horror and Deliverance or Death Wish-like exploitation. A Single Man was the work of a talented tourist; this is the work of a true filmmaker.
Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, an avant-garde art gallery owner whose life has become a series of false surfaces. The cold, gray mansion with the Jeff Koons piece in the yard sits on a mountain of debt, the “perfect” second marriage to a handsome philanderer (Armie Hammer) is a sham held together with smiles and denials, and Susan’s forbidding beauty hides a psychic hornet’s nest of dissatisfaction, shame and regret regarding her first marriage to a sensitive writer named Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).
As her husband steals away for the weekend with a younger woman, Susan pores over Edward’s latest novel, a disturbing revenge story about a milquetoast family man whose wife and daughter get abducted by drooling West Texas predators. The novel, named Nocturnal Animals after Edward’s old nickname for the night owl Susan, captivates and upsets her, and the creeping analogues between the story and her life expose possible gaps in her memory and fissures in her sanity.
Dwelling further on the plot would potentially deprive people of discovering the film’s puzzle box details on their own, but it’s acceptable to say that Nocturnal Animals deals with the tension between storytelling and self-image, between an idealized vision and the so-called real world, and between perceptions of weakness and strength. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey abets Ford’s alternately gloomy and gutsy vision by creating a ghostly Los Angeles and an unnervingly tactile West Texas.
Gyllenhaal also plays the husband in the story-within-a-story, while in an inspired bit of casting, Adams avatar Isla Fisher plays the wife. The entire cast is fantastic, assisted by a singular supporting turn from Michael Shannon and a scene-stealing walk-on by Laura Linney, with Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s tooth-sucking psychopath the only sour note. Adams is towering and yet understated in a way that few actresses could pull off. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal has been so reliably great of late that he’s often taken for granted, but the subtle shadings of his dual performance make most of his peers look like amateurs.