When it comes to assessing the merits of a film, I’m generally on the same page as my erudite LDU colleague, Stephen. Our reactions to Nocturnal Animals, however, couldn’t be further apart.
Tom Ford’s follow up to A Single Man (a film which neither Stephen nor I much cared for), is thankfully a completely different beast. At once elegant and brutal, deadly and playful, it proves once and for all there’s more to Ford than just beautiful surfaces.
That’s not to say Nocturnal Animals doesn’t look divine. This is what you get when a fashion designer turns his hand to filmmaking. Ever the aesthete, Ford has furnished his scenes with gorgeous decor and stunning outfits. The lush visuals are, however, a juxtaposition to the pulpy nature of the material, elevating what is essentially a noir story framed inside a psychological drama.
The opening credits are far from the kind of visual finery one would expect. We watch in slo-mo a series of ageing, large women gyrating in skimpy drum majorette costumes. This, it transpires, is part of the latest triumphant exhibition for art gallery owner Susan (the suddenly ubiquitous Amy Adams). Yet despite her success, she seems discontent with her career, her marriage and life in general. She rarely sleeps and smiles even less.
Out of the blue she receives a manuscript of a soon to be published novel by her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t spoken to in 19 years. He’s dedicated the book to her, which sounds sweet, until she starts reading it. From here, we the audience plunge into the book with her.
Clearly Tony is bitter about the break up with Susan and his form of therapy is writing an ugly, dark, sexually violent story in which his alter ego Edward (also played by Gyllenhaal) suffers great loss and anguish. On a deserted stretch of highway, three hooligans torment him, his wife (Isla Fisher – noticeably resembling Adams) and their teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber).
We experience the story in segments, being pulled out occasionally when Susan needs a break from the book’s distressing affects. In between chapters, and while she’s processing the knowledge that current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is having an affair, we get flashbacks of the disintegration of her first marriage, and ultimately discover the reason for Tony’s bitterness.
Considering the darkness of the story within the story, it’s surprising how much humour there is in it. Much of it coming from straight-shooting sheriff Bobby Andes (the inimitable Michael Shannon – giving us his trademark death stare to great effect). He has his own reasons for wanting to see justice prevail, and he doesn’t mind the means that lead to the end. It’s a standout performance in a stellar cast that includes Laura Linney (who gets a few choice lines of her own as Susan’s right-wing, materialist mother) and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the testosterone-fuelled alpha male of the tormenting redneck trio.
Abel Korzeniowski’s orchestral score is rich and menacing and is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock. The cinematography by Joe Wright’s regular collaborator Seamus McGarvey is a thing of beauty, contrasting the deep tones of Susan’s nocturnal L.A. with the sun-soaked exteriors of Edward’s hellish journey through Texas.
This is glossy, twisted, stylish fun. Lovers of modern noir are encouraged to dig in.
So who’s right, me or Stephen? Make up your own mind by grabbing tickets for Nocturnal Animals here.
Richard Leathem @dickiegee