D: Tom Ford / 117m
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Graham Beckel, Jena Malone
Back in 2009, Tom Ford, once the creative director at Gucci between 1994 and 2004, made a movie called A Single Man. He produced it, he wrote it, and he directed it. In the process, he ensured Colin Firth received his first Oscar nomination as the single man of the title, a grief-stricken English professor who finds it difficult to deal with the death of his partner. It won a shedload of awards, and Ford was heralded as an exciting new voice in contemporary cinema. But even in amongst the sterling notices, reviewers and critics were largely in agreement: Firth’s performance saved the movie from being an empty exercise in style over content. Now, seven years later, he’s back with another adaptation, this time swapping Christopher Isherwood’s work for that of Austin Wright, and his novel, Tony and Susan. Should be good, eh?
Well, actually, no. This is a movie that can be admired for several reasons. For instance, there’s Seamus McGarvey’s often exquisite cinematography, whether he’s using the lens to amplify the sterile environments lead character Susan (Adams) spends her life inhabiting, or the tactile desert locations where the novel within the movie takes place. And then there’s Abel Korzeniowski’s string-driven score, which adds a delicious sense of impending doom to both storylines. But despite these solid, unassailable elements, what Ford attempts with the twin narratives doesn’t pan out quite as well.
With its performance art opening sequence, Nocturnal Animals wants to keep the viewer wrong-footed, and it wants to keep its secrets all to itself. As you’re confronted by several large, ultra-wobbly ladies who are gyrating in the nude, Ford has already placed the viewer on the back foot. What you’re seeing, he seems to be saying, will be explained; just not right away. And this is how the tone of the movie is set from the beginning: you’ll see a lot of things that won’t immediately make sense, but in time they will… except for the things Ford has no intention of making clear. So, the naked ladies are part of an art exhibition at the gallery Susan owns. But Susan doesn’t seem to be too impressed by this particular exhibit. She appears to be elsewhere, caught up in her own thoughts. But again – already – Ford isn’t about to tell you what those thoughts are, or what they’ll mean (if anything) going forward.
We soon learn that Susan is on her second marriage, to a diffident, disconnected lump of a man called Hutton (Hammer). It’s obvious he doesn’t love her anymore, and he’s likely having an affair, but Susan doesn’t seem interested either way. She makes an effort toward they’re going away together but Hutton is too busy, and Susan is too lethargic to insist or get him to clarify the dates they can go. And while the viewer wonders if this is going to be yet another mannered, “arthouse” examination of a marriage break up with plenty of wistful stares into the distance by the wife, while the husband is unable to talk in meaningful sentences, Ford changes tack and introduces Susan’s ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal).
But not in person. No, instead, Edward is introduced to us through a novel he’s written, and one that he’s dedicated to Susan. Surprised – but more importantly so that the movie can proceed in a viable fashion, intrigued – Susan begins to read it. It’s not what she expects, though. But let’s think about that. What was she expecting? And why? Because, as we later discover, Susan had no faith in Edward’s abilities as a writer. So why does she even read it? Curiosity? To reinforce her opinion about his talent (or lack of it)? Because she’s bored? (At home, Susan doesn’t appear to do very much apart from drink the occasional glass of wine.) Actually, it doesn’t matter, as it’s one of the things Ford isn’t going to take the time to explain.
The story is a brutal one. Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) is travelling through the desert with his wife, Laura (Fisher), and daughter India (Bamber). Run off the road by a trio of men led by the would-be charming Ray (Taylor-Johnson), the family is threatened and verbally abused until chance sees Ray and one of his cohorts take the Hastings’ car – with Laura and India in it – and drive off, leaving Tony at the mercy of remaining “drunk baby” Lou (Glasman). Tony is made to drive after them, but it soon becomes obvious that Lou is just stringing him along, and Lou eventually makes Tony stop the car and get out; and then he drives off. Ray makes it back to the highway and hitches a ride to the nearest town. There he meets Detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) who agrees to go back out into the desert and check for the whereabouts of Tony’s family. They find them, both dead, but no sign of Ray and his buddies.
At this point, viewers should notice one of two things: that the character of Bobby Andes is at once more interesting and vital than anyone else in the movie (even Taylor-Johnson, who’s menacing and feral in equal measure), and secondly, that Edward’s novel, while intended to act as an emotional counterpoint to Susan’s life up until then, does get less involving and more straightforward as it continues. This allows two other, distinct things to happen: one) for Susan to begin to rethink her tidily tucked away feelings toward Edward, and two) for Ford to indulge in the kind of macho Western-style movie making once epitomised by the likes of Nicholas Ray and Budd Boetticher. But by then it’s all too late. Tony’s story can only have one outcome (which it does in such a contrived way you can hardly credit Ford the director agreeing with Ford the writer that it’s even partway acceptable dramatically), and the resolution to Susan’s immediate tale hints at a new beginning that she won’t be able to grasp.
Throughout, Ford places great stock on having Adams stare off into space and think deep thoughts about her past with Edward and her present with Hutton, but it’s largely to little or no effect. Part of the problem is that Susan isn’t particularly likeable. In her time with Edward we witness what a horrible person she is beneath the surface veneer of respectability that she’s gained by being a gallery owner. This leaves her storyline feeling (and looking) like a succession of still-life paintings waiting to be given three-dimensional expression. But this isn’t on Ford’s agenda; more shots of Adams staring into space most definitely are though. Adams is a fine actress – see Arrival (2016) if you’re not sure – but here she’s wasted in a role that requires her to internalise her character’s feelings… and then leave them there. The actress is called upon to make so little of her role it’s almost insulting; why hire someone who’s capable of doing so much more than you’ll let them?
Fortunately, Shannon and Taylor-Johnson are on hand to breathe distinct and recognisable life into their respective roles, elevating the material through sheer force of skill, and making it difficult to look away from either of them, even if they’re in a scene together. Gyllenhaal, though, is a cypher, playing two roles and being made to appear as more of a supporting actor than someone given second billing and the responsibility of portraying two important characters. There are times when Gyllenhaal can only shine when the material challenges him in such a way that he has no choice but to commit himself wholly to the part. Movies such as Enemy (2013) and Nightcrawler (2014) show this, but here Ford makes the character of Tony a bystander in his own story, while Edward’s contribution to Susan’s tale is limited by the decision to focus on that particular story from Susan’s entirely subjective point of view (you can’t trust her memories).
Ultimately, Ford makes the mistake of believing that his adaptation carries the necessary weight and complexity to make each narrative work both against and for each other. And this leads to the viewer being unable to connect with any of the characters, or feel able to show any sympathy towards them (only Shannon’s ailing cop elicits any credible feeling in the audience). It’s as if Ford has decided he wants to make a movie where the idea of leading a self-contained life (Susan’s) is preferable to one where hazards and risks (Tony’s) are more likely to happen. Either way, the one-time Gucci guru has made something that plays to its strengths as the new Tom Ford movie, but which lacks a clear identity all of its own.
Rating: 5/10 – too much smoke and too many mirrors means Nocturnal Animals isn’t as effective as its writer/director would like you to believe – or as persuasive; it goes without saying that the movie has a tremendous visual sense, but it’s a shame that a similar level of effort wasn’t afforded the script or the characters.