If Tom Ford’s first feature, A Single Man, was clearly the work of a fashion designer, his new offering, Nocturnal Animals, displays his real calibre as a director. Elements of his previous work remain, but they are subtler and less superfluous. Here we have a film based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, one which mocks the Los Angeles glamour from which Ford hails while bringing us a story within a story that is a cold and terrifying thriller.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a privileged but unhappy gallery owner living in L.A. She is forced to confront her past when a manuscript lands in her letterbox: a novel written by her ex-husband Edward (Jack Gyllenhaal), dedicated to her and entitled Nocturnal Animals. As she reads the novel, about a man named Tony (also Gyllenhaal) who encounters trouble in the Texan desert with his wife and his daughter, the events play out on screen. Interspersed with flashbacks to Susan and Edward's relationship, as well as shots of Susan's present life, we begin to see that this novel is an allegory on multiple levels.
The first scenes of the film are unmistakably Tom Ford. Dancing obese women are projected on huge screens, an installation at Susan’s gallery opening, and are meant to symbolise ‘junk culture'. Soon, however, we realise that Ford now wishes to satirise the art world as Susan admits the art, too, is “total junk”. As we slide into the novel, however, Nocturnal Animals really comes into its own. The first half brings us scenes on par with some of the greatest crime thrillers of all time and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray, one of the young men who accost Tony and his family on the highway, has the same sadistic air as Javier Bardem in the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men.
As the novel continues, Michael Shannon also shines as Bobby Andes, a dying detective who seems particularly taken with Tony’s case, and suggests a last attempt at vengeance. The final showdown of the story within a story lacks the tension achieved in the first half, but, nonetheless delivers palpable jumps. Ford’s trademark meticulous shots remain throughout the film, but unlike his first feature, here they are not overused. As a devastated Tony sits almost motionless on the edge of a motel bath, it could well be an underwear commercial, but his pose is mirrored by Susan, also caught up in a horror for which she was unprepared. The glossy, moody shots aren’t redundant, then, but show how there can be considerable beauty in suffering – more so than in the affected art world.
If Ford wanted to try his hand at a thriller to escape the artificiality of the fashion industry, it seems apt that the scenes showing the novel’s events outshine his portrayal of L.A. glamour – it is the story within a story that really leaves you wanting more. The satire of the art world is reminiscent of that in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, but not as enjoyably gaudy, and Ford is much better suited to jumping outside his own fashionable comfort zone. After all, for all the pain it may bring, just as Susan continues reading, we continue watching the horror unfold. Perhaps we are all nocturnal animals at heart, despite our attempts to conceal it.
Nocturnal Animals screens at the BFI London Film Festival 2016
Words by Imogen Robinson