A flood of emotion swept through “A Single Man” (2009), the debut feature film by the fashion designer Tom Ford. Based on a novel by Christopher Isherwood, the picture depicted the final day of a university lecturer who is unable to overcome his grief for the death, a year earlier, of the man he loved. The film’s meticulous design and the restraint that informed both Ford’s direction and the excellent performance by Colin Firth in the lead role, helped underscore the intensity of feeling that welled up from the depths of the movie and from deep within the protagonist’s psyche.
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Feelings also bursts from “Nocturnal Animals,” Ford’s second film, made seven years after “A Single Man.” But this time the emotion is given expression in far less subtle ways and is largely confined to one of the two stories that make up the movie. The major weakness of “Nocturnal Animals,” which is constructed as a story within a story, is that the frame story is shallow and this is not sufficiently compensated for by the story within the frame.
Where “A Single Man,” despite its scrupulous design and its emotional complexity, nevertheless possessed a degree of simplicity and captivating directness, “Nocturnal Animals” (which is based on a novel by Austin Wright), is driven by an ambition that remains unfulfilled. Instead, it channels the picture into realms that are so vague conceptually and emotionally that one suspects Ford sought to inject elements of irony into the film; but he failed.
The list of subjects the film sets out to tackle is particularly long: how art represents reality; the experience of reading a book, here translated into the experience of watching a movie; betrayal, guilt, contrition and revenge of different kinds; how choices made in the past bear consequences for our lives in the present; and the balance between men and women, which affects the essence of their relationship. None of these fraught subjects receives in-depth treatment, and the interaction between them generates a cinematic hash, which sometimes pushes the movie beyond its boundaries, into a place that stirs a degree of puzzlement, not to say ridiculousness.
The protagonist of the film is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the owner of a top-flight art gallery in Los Angeles that specializes in “progressive” art. Her presentation at the start of the film, in tandem with the titles, immediately makes us wonder whether the director is treating her with irony. Susan, who is the epitome of scrupulous neatness and tidiness, lives in a house of metal and glass in the hills of Los Angeles with Hutton (Armie Hammer), her second husband. He is a businessman whom she married for his economic status and his attractive appearance. Susan and Hutton are considered a successful and glamorous couple, but Susan knows that her husband is cheating on her and that he’s on the verge of financial collapse.
Susan herself was an art student, but decided not to become an artist, as she is too cynical (not exactly a statement of substance). In contrast, her first husband, Edward, aspired to be a writer. The two met when they were young, fell in love and married, but parted because Susan didn’t succeed in expressing support for her husband’s dream and the quality of his writing. Surprisingly, after 19 years of the two not being in contact, Susan receives a copy of Edward’s new book, titled “Nocturnal Animals” and dedicated to her. Alone in the house – her husband is always traveling (and not by himself) – Susan starts to read the book, a violent thriller. At this point, the plot of the book enters Ford’s film – a movie within the movie.
The novel tells the story of Tony, his wife Laura and their adolescent daughter India, who are driving at night through the uninhabited spaces of West Texas. A car carrying three young men, each more repulsive than the next, deliberately rams their car and forces it off the road. After the thugs force the family to endure several rites of humiliation, they abduct Laura and India and vanish into the darkness. Tony is shocked not only by the abduction, but by the exposure of his powerlessness as a man and as a father who was unable to protect the women in his life. He is alone, abandoned, amid the nocturnal wasteland.
The cinematic presentation of this story, which unfolds throughout the course of the film, is meant to convey Susan’s experience of reading Edward’s book. However, as a reader of books myself, I’m not familiar with any sort of experience that resembles Susan’s. Because the author is not a stranger to Susan, she transfers into the story what she is familiar with. In her imagination, Laura (Isla Fisher) resembles her, India (Ellie Bamber) recalls her daughter and Tony is a perfect copy of Edward (hardly surprising, as both are played by Jake Gyllenhaal).
But this device represents the reading experience too simplistically for it to possess even a semblance of authenticity. It’s the same whenever Susan puts the book down, shocked by the text. This would be persuasive if the film succeeded in making clear to us that Susan knows why Edward wrote the book and decided to dedicate it to her and send her a copy after such a lengthy period of complete separation. Without this being made clear, Susan’s reactions to the book’s plot seem blatantly exaggerated.
To Susan’s present and to the movie within the movie, Ford adds yet another layer: flashbacks from the period in which Susan and Edward met, fell in love and entered into a doomed marriage. These scenes possess a degree of simplicity and credibility that the film as a whole lacks.
But this added layer is not enough to save “Nocturnal Animals.” The movie within it is fascinating, like every routine thriller – it is saved by the performances of Michael Shannon as a sheriff dying of cancer, who helps Tony, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the leader of the gang that assaults Tony and his family – but the frame story doesn’t coalesce into a melodrama with substance. The reason, primarily, is that Susan, despite the feelings of contrition and guilt aroused by her confrontation with the past through her husband’s book, does not develop into a character capable of stirring interest. (That’s the fault of the script and not of Amy Adams, who gets very little opportunity to display her talent.)
If Ford’s “A Single Man” showed promise, “Nocturnal Animals” is worrisome in its pretentiousness and simplicity, and suggests that the director is having difficulty reaching the interiority of cinematic creation from the outside. Is this due to the fact that Ford is a fashion designer who turned to filmmaking? In “A Single Man,” his goal seemed to be realized successfully, and that film also showed that he understands how to transpose a literary original to the screen. But the goal fails in his second film. Ford’s next picture will show where he’s poised on the cinematic path between promise and disappointment.