Thursday, December 1, 2016

Well-Dressed Heartbreak: Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals.

Tom Ford may be a household name thanks to his work in the fashion industry as former creative director for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent before launching his eponymous label in 2006, but many may be surprised to know that he considers his sartorial success to be a stepping stone for his grander aims as a filmmaker. His initial foray into the world of cinema, with the 2009 Colin Firth and Julianne Moore drama A Single Man, was met with critical acclaim (and an Oscar nomination for Firth). Seven years later, his newest film, the noir thriller Nocturnal Animals, proves that A Single Man’s success was no accident and that Ford is good for much more than nice (read: stunning, impeccably tailored, outrageously classy, should-be-in-every-man’s-wardrobe) suits.

In fact, Ford’s prowess as a director isn’t the only thing Nocturnal Animals has illustrated for audiences. In addition to directing and producing the film, Ford also wrote the screenplay, which he adapted from an allegedly brilliant, but hitherto largely unknown, 1993 novel Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright. Ford makes many amendments to Wright’s original text, telling a distinctly different story that adapts the novel’s core themes for another medium. At the heart of Ford’s film is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a successful 40-something art gallery manager whose empty and unfulfilling existence in near-future Los Angeles is interrupted by the receipt of an advanced reader copy of a novel penned by her first husband Edward. Susan and Edward were married briefly in their twenties. He was an idealistic writer who couldn’t make a name for himself, she was an art student who was too pragmatic to create art of her own. They parted on bad terms and haven’t spoken in years. Most alarming of all, Edward credits Susan with inspiring his novel  a dark, violent tale of tragedy and revenge  even going so far as to dedicate the piece to her with a cool and ambiguous “For Susan.”

Bolstered by her crippling ennui, Susan gives in to her curiosity and reads Edward’s paperback missive instead of getting a restraining order. With an adult daughter living away from home and her philandering trophy husband perpetually away on “business,” Susan has plenty of time to shuffle around her sprawling modern home, getting lost in both Edward’s novel and the painful memories it conjures for her. From this nexus springs the film’s three interweaving storylines.  The first is Susan’s lacklustre present-day existence, largely full of her wallowing in bed, reading Edward’s book in a series of cozy sweaters. With incredible attention to detail, Ford uses colours in an almost Kubrickian way, reminiscent especially of the bold primary palette of Eyes Wide Shut. Susan’s present day frames the film and is rendered in a moody blue tone, polished but cold, Adams’s fiery red hair standing out in a series of stark, monochromatic sets. Running counter to this aesthetic are the harsh, warm tones of Edward’s novel, the story within a story that he titled Nocturnal Animals, after a nickname he gave Susan when they were married. Here, a husband and father, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), pairs up with a cowboy detective (Michael Shannon)  far more Marlboro Man than actual cop  in order to bring the murderer of his wife and daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber, completing Ford's redhead trifecta) to justice. As anyone would, Susan picks out key phrases and details in Edward’s work that hark back to her doomed first marriage. In a series of flashbacks, we see the younger Susan and Edward (Gyllenhaal again) meet cute in New York, fall in love, and ultimately fall apart. The culminating work feels like three different movies, each pivoting on narrative and visual parallels that fold into one devastating tale of regret, longing, and isolation.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in Nocturnal Animals.

While it’s not inaccurate to read Nocturnal Animals as a revenge tale that chronicles a discarded lover’s ultimate triumph over the woman that betrayed him, Ford’s story isn't really about Edward at all. The collapsing timelines and overlapping details, from the cross necklace Tony and Susan both wear to the creative decision to double-cast Gyllenhaal as both fictional Tony in Susan’s imagination and real-life Edward, brings the focus sharply to Susan’s unresolved guilt and her inability to move past a youthful decision that appears to have been a grave mistake. Adams shows serious range as both the young and old versions of her character. It’s so wonderful to see her taking on roles she can sink her teeth into at last, getting away from the Night at the Museums and Talladega Nights of her early career. I had little doubt in the ability of Adams, with her delicate features and infectious earnestness, to portray the younger iteration of her character, but the gravity she brings to the older Susan is a pleasant and powerful surprise. That performance is also bolstered by the wardrobe and makeup choices made by costume designer Arianne Phillips, who previously collaborated with Ford on A Single Man. Phillips expertly uses subtle stylistic choices to distinguish Susan’s advanced years from her youth: matte foundation, kohl eyeliner, and stick-straight hair signal Susan’s maturity while dewy skin, natural lips, and loose waves transform the 42-year-old Adams back in time into a believable 20-something, without a hint of a prosthetic anywhere. Gyllenhaal is similarly altered by tiny stylistic choices that keep the imagined Tony distinct from Edward. While Edward is clean-cut, idealistic, and arguably weak, Tony is rugged, tortured, and dogged in his pursuit of justice. Through the similarities and differences in these characters, Gyllenhaal understates, illustrating for the audience a character that we can’t quite pin down or figure out  which, it should be said, is perfect, as we see him exclusively through Susan’s eyes.

When I reflect on the film as a whole, strangely it is only the otherwise unforgettable performance by 26-year-old Aaron Taylor-Johnson that keeps coming in and out of focus. As the novel’s feral, nightmarish villain Ray, Taylor-Johnson seems so incongruent in the grander scheme of Susan and Edward’s un-romance that it’s jarring to imagine him having a place in Ford’s tale at all  but there he is, like a starved tiger stalking through Ford’s artfully constructed shots. Ray is at once fascinating and terrifying; he is a force of nature, an unpredictable tornado of terror and destruction, and yet Taylor-Johnson is charming in the role; somehow I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Even though I knew what was coming, the tension in the roadside confrontation between Tony and Ray was palpable, largely due to Taylor-Johnson’s manic performance. I was genuinely scared, then and there vowing to avoid the desert on all road trips in my future.

I left Nocturnal Animals with the feeling that I had for once witnessed something worthy of the term “art,” which I fully acknowledge is a pompous, snobby statement. Far beyond being a vanity project, as more jaded critics expected years ago when Ford first announced he wanted to get into filmmaking, Nocturnal Animals is an exercise in intention. In hindsight, it should come as no surprise that a man with Ford’s attention to detail would infuse his work with a deliberateness and style in every facet, from costuming to editing. The scoring is beautiful, the interplay between action and stillness is engrossing, and the performances are unanimously awe-inspiring. Currently, Nocturnal Animals is being screened in select theatres; do yourself a favour and catch it while it’s here. If you’ve ever thought for a second that what Tom Ford has done with something as basic as a suit is impressive, you absolutely need to see how he dresses up heartbreak.

– Danny McMurray has a B.A. in English Language and Literature with a minor in Anthropology from the University of Western Ontario. She is particularly enthusiastic about science fiction, horror movies, feminism, video games, books, opera, and good espresso – all of which she can find in spades in her home base of Toronto, Ontario.

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