It’s been the best part of seven years since fashion designer turned writer/director Tom Ford impressed cinemagoers with A Single Man, his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name about a bereaved professor who has recently lost his partner. Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, is also an adaptation of a novel: this time Tony and Susan by Austin Wright.
The film tells the story of well-to-do artist Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript in the post from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), from whom she split many years prior to the film’s opening. As Susan reads the manuscript, which details a fictional crime involving a thinly disguised version of her and her family, we see that fiction dramatised. There are also flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s early relationship, so Ford – as writer/director – and his editor Joan Sobel, have a challenging task to make all the strands not only work individually, but to come together as a cinematic whole. This is something they have achieved with great success, and is one of the film’s key strengths.
While A Single Man was a relatively stripped down piece of work, Nocturnal Animals is much more ambitious in terms of its scope. The cast is much larger, and the film’s interweaving of narratives is something that could’ve backfired, but Ford has shown he is capable of dealing with both, and that he is very much a director to be taken seriously.
Both lead actors are required to tackle their central roles in two separate arcs, and Gyllenhaal has the tough task of carrying the weight of the dramatised manuscript sequences which, in the hands of a lesser actor or director, could’ve overwhelmed the film. The fact that they don’t, and that all strands of the film are engaging and affecting, is a triumph that both director and performers can take great credit for. Adams and Gyllenhaal are actors at the top of their game at the moment, and can generally be relied upon to deliver strong performances, and that is very much the case here. Adams conveys the fragility of somebody who is professionally lost and trapped on an emotional plateau between two time periods (not easy when a lot of your screen time is spent reading a book) while Gyllenhaal carries the tension and weight of the novel interludes.
The film’s structure really works in portraying Susan and Edward as each other’s emotional counterweights, even though the two actors spend little actual screen time together. The story’s central arc – of a relationship that ended and the baggage both protagonists are saddled with – worked for me right up until the very well-pitched ending.
As we expect from Ford, the film has a strong visual style which comes through via Seamus McGarvey’s excellent cinematography; in particular during the many scenes set at night, which are enveloping and atmospheric. The real achievement, though, is that the film juxtaposes the bright, gritty Texan landscapes with the cold, dark cityscapes so flawlessly. The strands are held together too by Abel Korzeniowski’s score, which is dreamlike and menacing in equal measure.
The film’s one significant misstep is the opening credits sequence, which is deliberately provocative but for me felt misjudged. You could also argue the novel sequences are a tad overlong, but to cut them would’ve meant losing some of Michael Shannon’s delicious supporting performance as a Texas lawman. A mention, too, for Aaron Taylor Johnson, who shows us his terrifying side as a sadistic citizen of West Texas, and Laura Linney, who, despite having just one short scene in the entire film, ensures it hits with the required weight.
There’s a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, which pleasingly is a very different film to A Single Man, though equally confident an d compelling. With a cast on great form, a tricky narrative told in a confident way, and excellent technical qualities, there’s a whole lot to enjoy in Tom Ford’s second feature.