As almost every review has commented, its been seven years since fashionista Tom Ford tried his hand at movies with his debut film 2009’s A Single Man. That movie seemed like a perfect distillation of Ford’s style, a measured, elegant character piece adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1964 novel. A Single Man followed a suicidal college professor George Falconer (played by Colin Firth) bereft following the death of his partner Jim over a single day. The film addressed issues of sexuality, and the repression and uncertainty of early sixties American culture. It was not anything if not elegant, meticulous in its period detail and fashions (especially the distinctive glasses worn by Firth). The film met significant acclaim, but there was the suspicion that it was a definitive filmic statement by Ford, a one-off dip in an artistic pool made by a man who could afford to dabble.
Ford’s second film Nocturnal Animals is also adapted from a novel (Austin Wright’s 1993 Tony and Susan), and it puts to bed any notion that Ford is a dilettante as a film director. Like his previous film, this is again also (brilliantly) scripted by Ford and while it carries forward elements from A Single Man that clearly identify the writer/director as one befitting the often over applied status of an auteur, it is in many more significant ways about as far from his debut as you could imagine.
The film has an incredibly ambitious post-modern narrative structure of the kind that is widespread in literature but extremely difficult to transfer to film. Three storylines intertwine, two are notionally set the ‘reality’ of the film’s world, and one is a fiction being translated through a prism of the life experiences of the movie’s central character Susan (Amy Adams).
Susan lives in a stylish but empty LA home with her beautiful but inattentive husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). She is an art gallery manager, he has a vague role in finance. The couple is clearly unhappy, despite living a ridiculously privileged life there are looming money troubles and Susan is dissatisfied with both her work and personal life. Drifting through a modern art world that feels full of empty provocation (something introduced in the film’s startling credit montage of fleshy Americana – a sequence which initially feels uncomfortably on the nose from fashion magnate Ford).
Susan’s ennui is broken when she receives the manuscript of a novel written by her ex-husband Edward. The couple had known each other in high school and married young when Susan had just abandoned her plans to be an artist, and Edward was a struggling unpublished writer. She has largely written him out of her idealised life story.
The novel is a brutal neo-noir tale reminiscent of Cormack McCarthy or Jim Thompson’s work. With Hutton away trying to close a crucial business deal in New York, Susan spends the weekend reading the novel and we see it dramatised onscreen. It is a story of a family being waylaid on a lonely Texas highway by a group of thugs and suffering an act of atrocious violence. This sequence is a standout. It shatters the carefully poised upper class LA milieu of Susan’s story in sweaty and horrible detail. As she reads and we also see flashbacks to the sad story of her break up with Edward it becomes apparent that Susan is populating and filling in the details with her own life. The central character in the novel, Tony Hastings and Edward are both played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Hastings wife is played by Isla Fisher, and actress who looks strikingly similar to Amy Adams (is she Susan’s self image?) Certain objects make appearances in all three stories, attaining a talismanic status that knits them into one single narrative about Susan’s life.
If this sounds didactic and overly calculated, the film does not play that way. Each story is compelling and each reflects the other creating an electric atmosphere of unease. The fictional narrative is so viscerally mounted that it feels as real as the present day and flashback stories set in Susan’s ‘real world’. Especially the set piece scene where the Hastings family (their teenage daughter is also in the car) is run off the road by a gang lead by a never better Aaron Taylor-Johnson. When Michael Shannon enters this tale as a chain-smoking Texan detective with a shady agenda, the film becomes utterly riveting. No-one projects contained menace like Shannon. His pronunciation of the word ‘owl’ alone chills the blood.
The film is a thriller inside a drama, but the thriller slowly infects and colours the drama until Susan’s story is as knife-edge to watch as the violence unfolding in Texas. Her the nature of her breakup with Edward becomes the central mystery. His novel may be an elaborate act of revenge calculated to pierce her heart. Or it may be that Susan is becoming the co-author of the story and projecting her own guilt into the visual realisation of this story.
This in an amazing film that is by turns as glacially poised as any Michael Mann blue-tinted LA movie, and as hot blooded and brutal as a Coen Brothers neo-noir. The tricksy structure and femme fatale shadings of Susan’s character also evoke Hitchcock and De Palma at his most adventurous eighties thriller stage (the likes of the demented Raising Cain). The repetition of talismanic objects and the noir mood are properly evocative of David Lynch (rather than the vague and simplistic lesser surrealism that usually prompts this comparison).
The movie is technically incredible. Lush cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, unbelievably tight and inventive editing by Joan Sobel. The transitions between the stories are expertly done, and despite the complexity one never feels lost in the narrative unsure of who is who and where they are. A fabulous Herrman-esque score by Abel Korzeniowski is the olive in this bitter cocktail.
There are still links to A Single Man, no item in the film feels accidental. Ford continues his fascination with extraordinary classy eyewear by giving Susan an ostentatiously stylish set of reading glasses. But while the LA setting is awash with haute couture, Shannon’s western style suits feel are as evocative of film style as anything in the movie (I thought of Clint Eastwood in Coogan’s Bluff). That opening montage which initially made me quite queasy, thinking it was Ford looking down his nose at the lower classes of America finally feels like a repudiation of the empty, morally vacuous world of the LA art scene (as portrayed through Susan’s point of view).
This is a masterpiece of a film. It transcends its literary structure to deliver a final emotional punch as powerful as the ending of Todd Haynes’ Carol last year (although to a very different end).