Tom Ford is drunk on movies. Like the fashion icon he is, the director brings a keen eye for style, texture and design to the images he creates. But bruised humanity and the emotions roiling underneath elegant surfaces – those are his true subjects as a filmmaker. A Single Man (2009) was a masterful debut with Colin Firth giving a career-best performance as a gay professor feeling suicidal over the death of his lover. Ford hits it out of the park again in Nocturnal Animals, a stunning film noir that resonates with ghostly, poetic terror.
Amy Adams stars as Susan Morrow, a sleek, lacquered Los Angeles gallery owner without a hair out of place. The mess, however, is all inside. The film opens with one of her art installations featuring morbidly obese female nudes dancing (hello, David Lynch). Susan’s success is superficial: She hates her job, hates that she’s a manager and not an artist, and hates that her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is cheating on her.
Into Susan’s life comes an advance copy of a book. It’s from Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), the starter husband she dumped and forgot nearly two decades ago, with encouragement from her rich, hard-drinking harridan of a mother (Laura Linney, so good you want to kill her). The novel is dedicated to Susan. Sweet – only it isn’t. The tome tells the story of Tony (Gyllenhaal again), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber) on a nightmare road trip. Forced off a West Texas freeway by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and two other hoods, Tony must stand by helplessly while the boys have their way – and worse – with his wife and daughter.
WTF! The sequence is as terrifying as any chainsaw massacre or a Jim Thompson crime novel, showing Ford’s unexpected flair for shuddering unease and grisly, galvanizing action. Tony teams up with a Texas cop Bobby Andes, played with animal vibrancy by Michael Shannon, to bring these thugs to justice. But is he man enough? That’s the vengeful heart of the matter as Susan rightly interprets the book as retribution for the sins she committed against Edward.
What’s happening here is that Ford has taken on the impossible task of filming an unfilmable novel, Austin Wright’s 1993 Tony and Susan. There is some strain when the real world and Edward’s revenge fiction bump heads. But the impossible has brought out the visionary best in the director, who holds course as the ground keeps shifting. As a screenwriter, he added the satirical jibes at the L.A art world that aren’t in Wright’s novel. Otherwise, he sticks to the criss-crossing themes running through this parallel universe. Cheers to cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, composer Abel Korzeniowski and especially editor Joan Sobel who help Ford weave multiple stories into one darkly funny, visually dazzling piece.
The actors could not be better. Gyllenhaal, in two roles, dives deep into the wells of perceived masculine weakness. And Adams takes Susan from dewy college girl to hardened ice queen without missing a stop or a nuance in between. She’s spectacular. Nocturnal Animals can throw you with its shifts in tone, its merging of past and present, but don’t overthink what Ford has so cunningly crafted. Surrender to it.