Stylishly left out in the cold
Tom Ford bites off more than he can chew with ambitious second thriller
We're not keen on people being good at too many things, and most reviews of Tom Ford's 2009 directorial debut 'A Single Man' carried undercurrents of bitchy condescension. Wasn't it enough to be a fashion god, seemed to be the general subtext - who did he think he was? That film starred Colin Firth as a gay college professor floundering in 1960s Los Angeles: it looked too pretty, critics complained, everyone was too well dressed.
I thought it was an impressive debut and now, seven years later, comes this hugely ambitious follow-up, a beautifully gloomy thriller containing a story within a story and carrying heavy echoes of Hitchcock.
In Nocturnal Animals' hypnotic opening scenes, obese, semi-naked women dance provocatively in slow motion past the lens, their rippling flesh simultaneously attracting and repelling Ford's audience and promising a stern critique of fashion's perverse value system.
But Mr Ford has nothing of the sort in mind: the ladies are gyrating in the service of art, and are part of an avant-garde show put on by LA gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). It goes down well, but Susan doesn't seem to care, and retreats to her ultramodern mansion in the Hollywood hills to brood. She's wealthy, beautiful, and waited on hand and foot by servants she barely seems to notice.
Her handsome husband (Armie Hammer) barely seems to notice her, and their marriage is on the point of unravelling when Susan receives an unexpected message from the past. A parcel arrives containing a manuscript and a letter from Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), the ex-husband she hasn't seen in 20 years. They shared a passionate, intense relationship for several years, but Susan grew tired of Tony's lack of financial ambition, and left him.
Hastings returned to his garret to fulminate, and all these years later has completed a novel he wants Susan to read before anyone else does, because it's based in part on their relationship. But when Susan starts to read the draft, she initially can't see how exactly.
The novel, which Ford lushly dramatises with the help of his Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, is a bleak psychological thriller that might have been written by Cormac McCarthy and takes place in the badlands of west Texas. A man called Edward (also played by Mr Gyllenhaal) is driving through the night with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) when they're pursued by a gang of rednecks led by a loathsome maniac called Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as unconvincing as usual). The women die, and a devastated, Edward seeks the help of a local detective (Michael Shannon) who thinks there are more ways than one of getting justice.
As Susan reads all this, she's overcome by memories of her relationship with Tony, and begins to hope they might now be reunited. But if she'd read more closely, she might have noticed that the book has simmering undercurrents of hurt and rage, and that its story's topography relates unflatteringly to their relationship.
All of this is wonderful to look at, lush and stark and accompanied by a swooning soundtrack that draws our minds not just towards Hitchcock but also the heightened melodramas of Douglas Sirk. It's impressive, as the gushing reviews that followed its appearance at the Venice Film Festival have made clear, but also arid, and superficial, a film composed of brilliant moments that lacks unity and is too concerned with itself to truly come to life. Tom Ford adapted his story from a 1993 novel by the late Austin Wright, which the film-maker tweaked to fit his themes of emotional alienation in a time of rampant consumerism, and the mutual toxicity of commerce and art.
Which is all very well, but for all its cleverness his film rings hollow, feels utterly inauthentic and is peopled by characters in whom it is impossible to believe. Hitchcock's films always made you feel something; this one left me cold.
Films coming soon...
Arrival (Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg); American Pastoral (Jennifer Connolly, Ewan McGregor); Moscow Never Sleeps (Evgenia Agenorova, Rustam Akhmadeyev); Land of the Enlightened (Pieter-Jan De Pue).