When fashion designer Tom Ford made his move into filmmaking, it was met with a degree of scepticism. However, his debut film ‘A Single Man’ (2009) turned out to be breathtaking, demonstrating that Ford not only had the craft and understanding of cinema, but had a distinctive voice of his own. Now, with his sophomore feature ‘Nocturnal Animals’, we’re not waiting to see if he’s any good, but to see whether he can again capture whatever lightning in a bottle he caught last time. The great surprise is though that Ford isn’t trying to capture that same lightning - instead, he has a whole different set of tricks hidden up his sleeve.
Art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) finds no satisfaction in her career or her marriage, but whatever stability she has in her life is shaken with the arrival of a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). He has sent her the proof of his first novel, ‘Nocturnal Animals’, dedicated to her, wanting her to be the first person to read it. As she reads, so do we, watching an horrific story unfold about a man (also Gyllenhaal) whose wife and daughter are kidnapped and brutally murdered, and his pursuit of justice with Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). As Susan digs deeper into the novel, she revisits her relationship with Edward and the mechanisms that caused it to fall apart and, in turn, create this harrowing novel.
After the gentle heartbreak of ‘A Single Man’, the brutality of ‘Nocturnal Animals’ comes as a shock, but this new film further exemplifies Ford’s skills as a major filmmaker and storyteller. Adapting Austin Wright’s novel ‘Tony and Susan’, Ford crafts an incredibly tense and sinister little tale, one that plays with form and perspective in a way not dissimilar to David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’ (2014) or Chan-wook Park’s ‘The Handmaiden’ (2016). Many of the visual and narrative tricks he employs aren't original, but it’s the skill with which he uses them that sets him and the film apart. The "film-within-a-film" concept is beautifully handled, the world of Edward’s novel complementing and complicating Susan’s reality. Much is left for the audience to piece together themselves, often leaving questions unanswered and motivations unexplained, but this works because of the conscious decision to do so and to leave us to come to our own conclusions. Ford’s understanding of framing, rhythm and colour are extraordinary, and here he uses them to slowly build and manipulate tension until it’s almost unbearable; perhaps the greatest surprise of this film is that Ford is so skilled with the thriller genre. Every technical element is sublime, from Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography to Joan Sobel’s editing to Abel Korzeniowski’s score, each element in perfect balance to serve the experience Ford has crafted for his audience. It’s a film aware that someone is watching, and doesn’t waste a frame or a cut or a moment.
As much as, in reductive terms, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ might sit in a different genre from ‘A Single Man’, the thematic ideas are complementary, so much so that at times, they feel like companion pieces. The characters in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ - on both levels of the narrative - are characters adrift, cut free from their safety lines and floating precariously out of control, just like George and Charley in ‘A Single Man’. Their struggle here to find stability is oftentimes violent and vicious, but the fight-or-flight instincts are what drive them, giving the film an animalistic quality. In this film, that struggle is contained to within an inch of its life, but this just makes the tension and emotional violence more potent, as we watch and wait for everything to explode.
The complexity and difficulty of the material ask a lot of the cast, but all of them deliver remarkable performances. Amy Adams crafts a creature of marble with Susan, forced to make herself hard to survive but threatening to crumble at any moment. Much of her character relies on her presence within the image, and Adams holds your attention in a vice-like grip. Susan may appear cold and controlled, but through the ever-growing cracks, we glimpse the screaming fear that her life is on the verge of collapse. Gyllenhaal faces the unusual challenge of balancing both Edward and Tony, the protagonist of his novel, but he does so with tremendous skill, making both characters distinct while importantly crafting small details of similarity. Tony’s devastation is raw and harrowing, while Edward’s innocence is charming and heartbreaking. Ford takes full advantage of the chemistry between Adams and Gyllenhaal, and their moments together bring lightness and magic amidst the darkness of the film. Michael Shannon is as terrific and dangerous as usual as Andes, riffing on a character we’ve seen from him before with his tongue firmly in his cheek, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson is explosive as the repulsive antagonist of the novel, Ray Marcus. The rest of the wonderful ensemble includes Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough and a wonderfully camp moment from Laura Linney and a jaw-dropping wig.
Ford’s understanding of framing, rhythm and colour are extraordinary, and here he uses them to slowly build and manipulate tension until it’s almost unbearable; perhaps the greatest surprise of this film is that Ford is so skilled with the thriller genre.
When ‘A Single Man’ was released, it completely blew me away, and I hoped that Tom Ford wouldn’t tempt fate by making another film. Yet I’m so glad it did happen, otherwise we wouldn’t have ‘Nocturnal Animals' - this twisted, complex puzzle-box of a film. The craft is so hypnotic and extraordinary, and its story and characters intensely haunting, so much so that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I saw it, and cannot wait to see it again. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is one of my favourite films of this year, and solidifies Tom Ford as one of the most dynamic and exciting filmmakers working today. I cannot recommend this film enough.