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Film

Nocturnal Animals

A story within a story

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

High art meets base behavior in Nocturnal Animals, the singular second feature from Tom Ford, the fashionista and filmmaker.

This melodramatic yet nihilistic thriller unfolds in two distinct yet connected locations and mindsets, like a collision between Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind and David Lynch’s Lost Highway. Adapting his screenplay from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Ford interweaves influences and style obsessions with an exactitude bordering on malevolence.

Scenario one: the red lipstick and cold lines of the modernist Los Angeles inhabited by Amy Adams’ Susan, an art dealer with money, power and guilt.

Scenario two: the scarlet wounds and hot asphalt of the desolate West Texas of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Tony, Susan’s ex-husband, a stressed and vulnerable author with scores real and imagined to settle.

Susan hasn’t seen Tony in 19 years, since she left him for another man (an aloof and philandering Armie Hammer). There wasn’t enough ink in Tony’s pen to satisfy her, so to speak, just as she’d been warned by her society matron mama (a delightfully wicked Laura Linney).

More caution comes by way of cocktail chatter. Susan is at a party for another of her big-buzz art shows—which features nude obese majorettes seen in an arresting prologue—when she runs into two peacock pals, archly played by Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen.

When Susan complains about the “junk culture” of their airy existence—she’s not as vacuous as she seems—Sheen’s character advises acquiescence: “Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful than the real world.”

Susan suddenly receives the manuscript of a novel called Nocturnal Animals, written by Tony and dedicated to her.

She settles into a comfy couch, and finds herself in the uncomfortable position of reading about a man named Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal, who is set upon by three rednecks one night while driving a lonely stretch of road with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter (Ellie Bamber).

The rednecks, led by a leering psychopath named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) are the kind of bad men who enjoy making people suffer. And the scene, shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey as a distant and visceral remove from the interior torment of A Single Man, Ford’s first film, fully lives up to the ominous strings of Abel Korzeniowski’s urgent score.

The film takes yet another turn, still contained within the Texas section, as Michael Shannon strolls into the frame, announcing his intentions: “I look into things around here.”

He’s a local detective, close to retirement and even closer to death (via lung cancer), who wants to dispatch a few demons to hell before he makes his own otherworldly trek.

“Are you willing to go outside strict procedure on this?” he drawls to Tony.

We don’t need to ask the same thing of Tom Ford. His seven-year absence from the big screen has emboldened his art, even as it has hardened his heart.

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