“Sometimes it’s not good to change things so much”
One movie stood out in 2009: fashion designer Tom Ford‘s unlikely directorial debut A Single Man. It had style to spare and amazing performances (Colin Firth‘s Oscar loss was vindicated a year later), but its emotionality was its greatest strength. Ford created this tragic whirlwind and found a glimmer of hope—a way out of the darkness to acknowledge that there’s more life yet to live. That was the trait I looked forward to experiencing on a larger scale with his follow-up, Nocturnal Animals. It’s a story about a man scorned in a way that his scorner admits ends things “brutally.” I prepared for despair, guilt, and gravitas and more-or-less received each in equal measure. They didn’t, however, arrive with the viscerally resonate gut-punch I had been anticipating.
Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright‘s Tony and Susan wields emotion as an intellectual concept to be explored rather than the physical manifestation of pain, betrayal, and love that A Single Man possessed. At times it feels like he’s second-guessing his talent, wrongly assuming he’s failed to hit a chord before driving the point home further. Ford and lead actor Amy Adams (as Susan Morrow) masterfully creates her character’s sorrow and regret in Act One, and yet he cuts back to her insomnia throughout Act Two as though we might forget what ails her. It’s very clear that Susan is unhappy with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) and her successful yet empty art career. She yearns for the past. She yearns for the love she forsook from Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).
By constantly returning to her reading the manuscript Edward (her ex-husband) wrote, Ford implies the words are for her benefit even though we know they aren’t. It’s purposefully stated that this novel was written in reaction to everything he experienced during and after their break-up. This was his catharsis, his way of pulling himself out of complacency to create something “real” like he always knew he could. In a way, Susan becoming the thing she abhorred (her mother, played with a debutante bite by Laura Linney) saved Edward. It jumpstarted his voice to finally possess something worthy of the page, providing the ability to write himself in a substantive way that wasn’t purely self-indulgent. He discovered who he was and then gave her a turn at the mirror.
The same can be said about Susan too, though. In another almost too circuitous maneuver, Ford shows his lead in flashback talking about how she rejected becoming an artist because she wasn’t cynical enough. Later, when she’s ending her marriage, she declares she’s too cynical. It was realizing she wasn’t the idealistic woman of the people starkly contrasting her parents’ close-minded narcissism that gave her the internal propulsion to create. Like Edward, she too “wrote what she knew” as evidenced by a startling opening credits sequence of dancing obese women. Here is a self-portrait, the person she was beneath the materialism and make-up exposed. She had trapped herself in a life of isolation and artifice. Her decision to reject love for status was inevitably all-consuming.
Edward and Susan’s divorce therefore set them onto individual paths—one found strength, the other desolation. And the lynchpin to this obvious discovery is his novel’s artistic metaphor for what he lost. It loses impact in not being allowed to unfold on its own without interruption, though. I understand that Ford felt a need to show Susan reading as a vehicle to deliver the flashbacks of their romance with tenuous contextual relevance, but justifying it doesn’t make it any less clunky. Rather than experience her shock upon slamming the book shut upon violent scenes, I saw unintentionally comedic hysterics. Not only did Ford remove us from a riveting moment in the life of the fictitious Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again), but he replaced that tension with reactionary emptiness.
Both Ford and Adams are too good at the start to make any of her mid-chapter revelations poignant in their aftermath. We understand the connections: how Tony is a manifestation of the “weakness” Edward has had to combat his whole life growing up with sensitivity in the masculinity-fueled world of West Texas, and how Susan is both Tony’s wife Laura (Isla Fisher in an inspired bit of inside-joke casting) and the predatory Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) ripping everything apart. Seeing Susan jolt and breathe as everything clicks becomes patronizing in a way because it has already clicked for us. Suddenly, what had been an example of substance and style co-existing becomes style alone. Every cut back to Adams is pretty, but none provided anything new.
A perfume commercial aesthetic—like the quick edit from Susan driving towards her stainless steel gate to a close-up of her eyes blinded by reflected light—becomes more prevalent and the film colder. I loved the look of the Los Angeles high-life with Susan’s vacuous art opening and the hubristic waxing on of friends Carlos (Michael Sheen) and Alessia (Andrea Riseborough). Ford plays with the vapidity and hollowness of this LA world and Susan doesn’t belong despite looking the part. I loved how she needed an assistant to open a package and read a letter because you sense she resents living this way. The juxtaposition of this atmosphere with the seediness of Texas psychopaths and grizzled detectives (Michael Shannon‘s Bobby) is therefore brilliant until that comparison becomes distraction.
I really found myself investing in Tony as a person beyond the tool that he was created to be. Gyllenhaal commits to fear and rage as Edward re-purposes his emotions into Tony’s actions. Shannon is fantastic as the detective assigned to investigate the disappearance of Tony’s wife and daughter, his relish in doing what he allows himself to do. By the end a bit pulpy, but never overwhelmingly so. These two have a great rapport that’s augmented when opposite Taylor-Johnson’s sleazy cretin of a human being. There’s a palpable tension to what Tony endures, the pacing and ambition creating a bonafide thriller within the drama of Susan’s self-pity and regret. It’s so good that Ford does a disservice forcing us to remember it isn’t real every five minutes.
I enjoyed so much of what he accomplished in Nocturnal Animals, from casting to cinematography to score. Ford surrounds himself with the best and has the vision to lead them to success. He sets everything up perfectly, segues into metaphor with intensity, and caps it all with a subtly measured act of vengeance in which the victim’s idealism becomes the weapon that victimizes her by shielding the novel’s true meaning. It’s all so strong when isolated, and yet tonally and thematically convoluted when put together. Authenticity is artifice too often to not feel at arm’s length to its impact throughout. I have a feeling I will enjoy myself a lot more during a second viewing, but for now I only see greatness shackled under its own weight.
Rating: R | Runtime: 116 minutes | Release Date: November 23rd, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Focus Features
Director(s): Tom Ford
Writer(s): Tom Ford / Austin Wright (novel Tony and Susan)