Ford’s dedication to communicating visually is laudable, but the words spoken need to be worthy of being heard as well.
Tom Ford’s transition from fashion magnate and elite rapper name drop fodder to filmmaker has been surprisingly seamless. His debut feature, A Single Man, was a critical success, highlighting Ford’s innate skills as an on screen aesthetician. That film was a lean, languid look at personal loss, characterized as much by a singular focus as its ornate imagery. His anticipated follow-up Nocturnal Animals follows in similar footsteps. It’s adapted from a little known novel close to the director’s heart. But unlike his first film, his latest cinematic excursion is ambitious to a fault, extending its reach beyond the grasp of Ford’s considerable gifts for storytelling.
Nocturnal Animals, based on the 1993 novel Tony & Susan by Austin Wright, unfurls from a curious structure. It stars Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner whose husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) has grown increasingly distant. Susan has a life of luxury and security, but seems isolated, empty, a caricature of upper class malaise. At the start of the film, she receives a package from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). Inside, she finds a manuscript for Edward’s first novel, which he’s dedicated to Susan. The novel is a thriller following a man named Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and the tragedy that befalls his wife and daughter on a road trip.
Susan becomes engrossed in the book while reminiscing about the dissolution of her and Edward’s relationship, leading her to question the life decisions that have left her alone in a giant house reading a book clearly written to make her feel shitty for giving up on the love of her life. The source material lays this out as a book within a book structure, but for the adaptation, Ford wisely eschews a more literary approach. The manuscript unfolds on screen like its own separate film, with no intrusive voice over narration to approximate Edward’s authorial voice. The audience experiences it much the way Susan herself does, feeling its emotional beats as punchy wallops cracking the firmament of her own reality. It’s an inspired choice, really.
But it’s also a frustrating one. The two narratives are so disparate at times as to be cause tonal whiplash. Susan’s world is Ford’s own florid critique on living the high life, finding a wounded melancholy staining the pristine walls of her broken home. It’s a touching portrait, one rife with lengthy passages of dialogue that make every interaction Susan has feel like outtakes from a prolonged therapy session. It’s hard not to imagine Ford himself exorcising some upper crust guilt his charmed life has afforded him through Susan’s crisis of conscience. On its own, these scenes possess a mature, navel gazing quality that fits right at home in an art house cinema.
Edward’s book, however, is a different beast entirely. It’s a southern fried neo noir with spartan visuals, textured scenery and a throwback approach to genre. Watching Tony and detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) hunt down a gang of rapists in West Texas is just an inherently more engrossing use of screen time than any shots of Amy Adams looking sad combined. Flipping between Susan’s life and Edward’s novel begins to feel like Cormac McCarthy penning The Neverending Story, only without the added bonus of the dual realms intersecting through some kind of magical realism.
As fascinating as it is to watch Ford flex his muscles a bit with this meaty subject matter (seeing his usual Douglas Sirk cover band approach tinged with the pulpy aftertones of Robert Aldrich), that visual spectacle is besides the point. Ford’s eye for rapturous shot composition and stirring camera movements are gorgeous to behold, but the film isn’t meant to be a showcase for the audience. Edward’s book is a message to Susan, one meant to articulate things he couldn’t put into words at the dissolution of their marriage. In flashbacks, we see the skeleton of their marital conflict, that Susan, like her mother she despises so much, wants a more structured, secure life with a monied man like Hutton. She can’t bring herself to keep supporting Edward as a struggling, sensitive writer obsessed with romantic idealism.
In those scenes, we only see Edward from Susan’s perspective. First, he appears as the antithesis of everyone else in her life, an escape from her rigid family. But then he comes to represent all of her fears and insecurity at not having more solid ground to stand on. When we meet Susan, she’s on that ground she’s chosen, but she can’t reconcile the choice she’s made. Much of Edward’s real characterization comes from this story he’s written. Through the torturous tale of Tony Hastings, a man who even shares a face with Edward, we can see him wrestling with his personal weaknesses. That he chooses to do so with a visceral rapesploitation narrative is a little disconcerting, but even that seems a deliberate commentary on the straight white male writer archetype. All in all, it’s a unique way to explore the human rubble left after an imploded relationship.
But to really execute that kind of story requires a clarity and nuance Ford, for all his natural filmmaking acumen, doesn’t possess as a screenwriter. The film runs just under two hours, but feels almost twice that length. It suffers from shoddy narrative foundation that undercuts the emotional complexity of its two leads. In the moment, as you’re watching, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of Tony’s story and forget Susan’s entirely. But after the credits, the lingering questions left in the film’s wake only succeed in highlighting its structural failings. It’s clear Ford is capable of making films of this caliber, but sticking the landing in future efforts might require a collaborator at the script stage.
In a recent interview, Ford said “an image on screen needs to be worthy of being looked at.” It’s a maxim that informs his approach to telling a story through film. His dedication to communicating visually is laudable, but the words spoken need to be worthy of being heard as well.