FOR SOME REASON, I thought at times during Nocturnal Animals of the sixteen-year-old boy at my school whose response to separating from his girlfriend of two weeks was to carve her name into his arm with a compass. Clearly there are people in this world who take a break-up, well, worse than others.
Tom Ford’s second film has something to say about relationships and break-ups. At the centre of it is Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), whose concerns about her deteriorating marriage to aloof businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer) is briefly interrupted by the arrival of a manuscript for a novel written by her estranged ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) and an invitation for dinner.
Ford depicts the events of Edward’s novel––dedicated to Susan––as Susan reads in the dim glow of her bedside light. Tony Hastings, a peaceful man and the central character in Edward’s story, is driving through West Texas with his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and their daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), when they’re forced off a pitch-black road in an area without phone signal by three snarling, smiling, sadistic men. It’s a nightmarish scenario, and Tony is powerless to prevent the three beating him before snatching his family and driving off in his car. A shaken Susan stops reading, and then the events onscreen shift from those of the novel to those in the real world.
The film’s stylishness is not separate from its central distinction (or tension) between art and power. Susan is successful but emotionally unfulfilled. She has a statue of Jeff Koons by her pool and a palace of a home, but she is the owner, not the artist.
Like A Single Man, and as you might expect from a fashion designer of Tom Ford’s ability, Nocturnal Animals is an immensely stylish film. Susan’s house is a Modernist dream of glass and metal and concrete, set high above Los Angeles. She herself is impeccable; her husband Hutton, who is increasingly distant and in trouble financially, is just as well turned out. Even Ray, the sadistic leader of the three depraved souls of Edward’s novel, is played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (albeit with unruly mutton-chops). But the film’s stylishness is not separate from its central distinction (or tension) between art and power. Susan is successful but emotionally unfulfilled. She has a statue of Jeff Koons by her pool and a palace of a home, but she is the owner, not the artist. Her ex-husband, meanwhile, was the creative soul who could touch her emotionally, but his ‘weakness’ drove into the arms of someone she perceived to be more powerful.
To put it another way, Susan’s outwardly beautiful existence actually feels ugly––uglier, in fact, that she might have realised. If nothing else then, Nocturnal Animals is a pleasure to look at, and well enough scripted so as not to sail over the line between thought-provoking and pretentious. No doubt a towering ensemble cast that includes not only those mentioned above but Michael Shannon, Laura Linney and Michael Sheen helps to bring what little emotion exists out of a story that so deliberately puts style above substance and often feels cold and hard. But it seems that it was never Ford’s purpose to inspire feeling. Instead, and like Susan’s life, what he wants to convey is the emptiness of wealth and beauty and meaning––even at the cost of creating something more involving.
Nocturnal Animals therefore, despite its large budget and all-star cast, has more in common with art cinema than those aimed at commercial success or mass appeal.