With his directorial debut A Single Man, fashion designer Tom Ford transposed his stylised and reserved aesthetic sensibilities to cinema, poignantly telling the story of a college professor still struggling with the death of his partner, 16 years on. With his Silver Lion-winning follow-up, Nocturnal Animals, Ford opts for a more overtly-defined non-linear narrative; a sinister, if heavy-handed, exploration of past bleeding into present. Though its ambition is greater than that of Ford’s debut, Nocturnal Animals is an ultimately less affecting and cohesive work; in its adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, the film itself indulges in the superficiality it appears to critique.
Nocturnal Animals places us in the world of desperately unhappy art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), whose marriage to the aloof financier Hutton (Armie Hammer) is all but over. Sleek, reserved and emotionally repressed, she moves among the fashionable elite of Los Angeles high society. Her careful, composed facade slips away when, after twenty years of silence, her novelist ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes back into her life, via the abrupt delivery of a manuscript, a novel called, yes, “Nocturnal Animals”. Susan begins to read Edward’s work, drawing us into the perturbing story-within-a-story. Novel protagonist Tony (the other component of Gyllenhaal’s dual role) and his family (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) are travelling along a deserted Texan highway in the middle of the night when their car gets forced off the road by a gang of depraved goons, led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Ray Marcus. His wife and daughter are then abducted and murdered, forcing Tony to seek revenge. Off the page, Susan is newly compelled to ruminate on the past, recalling her younger self and marriage to Edward.
Like A Single Man before it, at the forefront of Nocturnal Animals is Ford’s distinct sense of style. The colours within the manuscript narrative are vivid and striking; portentous splashes of vibrant red mark the scenes, enhancing the sense of dread that lurks throughout. The wide, rust-coloured plains of Texas in the manuscript sequences are juxtaposed with the dreary, washed out palette of Susan’s contemporary life in Los Angeles. Each shot in the latter environs is dictated by strict geometric lines and shades of white, black, grey. Ford employs these stark modes of stylisation to quickly distinguish between his three narrative threads. The non-linear and fluid storyline is aided by Joan Sobel’s seamless editing. Fearlessly, the film jumps through time but these pivotal turning points never fail to engage us; immediately, we’re privy to the most conflicted, intriguing moments in Susan’s life.
Accompanying this ever-present stylisation is Ford’s preoccupation with the way in which his characters’ emotions are refracted through others, or images, rather than ever clearly expressing themselves. Yet where A Single Man showcased Ford’s skill at drawing out underlying emotions from a lush cinematic vision, often in Nocturnal Animals the emotional beats lack subtlety. Early in the film, Susan takes off a full face of make-up and puts on her glasses to begin reading Edward’s manuscript – a moment echoed towards the film’s end. It’s hard to miss the symbolism, given the flashbacks to Susan’s younger, less-made up self: this is her, but more authentic and vulnerable. Her flawless public persona has, temporarily, been shed. Later, another shot places her by a painting that spells out quite literally what haunts her: “Revenge”. The intention of the imagery is too obvious, as though Ford does not trust himself or his audience to read the subtext of his scenes.
The recurring notion of Edward’s perceived weakness is channeled through the character of Tony, whose inability to prevent the horrors that befall his wife and daughter mirror the tragedy that takes place in ‘real life’. Like his author, Tony doesn’t quite measure up to the patriarchal role assigned to him – something made more clear when comparing Tony to Michael Shannon’s archetypal Texan detective. When the detective decides that legal avenues aren’t enough to see justice be done for Tony’s family, this straying from a strict moral code and a masculine will to enact revenge stands in stark contrast to Tony’s hesitation.
In a film where a delicate balance is negotiated between the slow, melancholic melodrama of the ‘real’ narrative, and the manuscript’s brutal revenge thriller, the latter ultimately triumphs. We view Susan in long, wide shots, engulfed by the stark architecture of her home, a lonely figure contemplating the manuscript in hand. In fact, there are many shots interspersed throughout the film, where Susan reads or mulls over the past when reflecting on her ex-husband’s novel. These glimpses of vulnerability and pain are reminiscent of the empathetic way in which directors such as Pedro Almodovar portray their female protagonists. Similarly, his heroines are often compelled to revisit their past (if not literally then emotionally) and contemplate the past. Yet, unlike the emotional emancipation that A Single Man’s protagonist George attains at its very climax, Susan ultimately becomes entrapped by her past. Indeed, Edward achieves catharsis at Susan’s expense. The film’s recurrent religious imagery, and Laura Linney’s engaging turn as Susan’s mother, are a reminder too of the role played by societal pressures and expectations in Susan’s life. Whether the resulting guilt from her greatest mistake is justified or not, is something Ford never clearly takes a stance on. Where Edward’s emotions are clearly and potently defined by the fast-paced, traumatic novel narrative, the melodramatic outer narrative seems less well-developed. That ambiguity translates to an emotional uncertainty for its audience.
Cleverly, Ford chooses not to show Edward on screen in anything other than flashbacks; his manuscript is a proxy for his presence, a coolly untouchable final statement that stands in stark contrast to the unraveling emotional state of Susan, to which we are continually privy. Despite this constant and intimate attachment to Susan, Ford isn’t able to capture the same emotional intricacy for her as he does with Edward. Edward’s presence and his impression upon Susan beyond the manuscript’s pages are keenly felt, but Adams has less to work with in her slower, more contemplative scenes. She is left to grapple with her internal struggle alone; there are no scenes of dialogue or conflict to seize onto. Even the dynamic between her and Hammer’s Hutton appears stilted, rather than strained, playing oddly when the film is establishing their relationship.
Ultimately, the film’s disparate genres do not blend together as effectively as its narrative navigates the past and the present. Despite this lack of stylised subtlety, though, moments of inspired visual ingenuity allow Ford to provide glimpses of clarity and insight into his protagonist’s anguish, and conjure genuine dread as Tony’s story unfolds.