Nocturnal Animals (Tom Ford, Focus Features, 2016)
Updated: Jun 16, 2021
A powerful mix of interweaving narrative strands, Tom Ford’s sophomore feature is a superb exploration of beauty, betrayal and the hollowness of materialistic pursuit
If you surrender to cynicism, be ready to eat your words.
The year is 2016. Tom Ford is not a name I immediately perceive as being cinematic. I haven’t seen A Single Man (2009), Ford’s acclaimed directorial debut, but my assumptions are steadfast. This is not somebody who dredges up assurances of silver-screen artistry. Ill-informed and cocksure, I let my presumptions fester. This guy isn’t a filmmaker, I tell myself. He’s a bland fashionista. A purveyor of pricey suits and shiny bags. This dude understands the importance of shrewd labelling and precise celebrity endorsement. But that’s where it ends. Tom Ford won’t make anything worth watching, I reiterate to my friend, who quite rightfully rolls his eyes. Now let the sniffier undertones of my sentiments sit with you. I know that they sound dismissive and narrow-minded, but hear me out.
A well-established name in luxury fashion, Tom Ford is a veteran of a world I’ve often found vacant and vapid. When I first noticed the promotional materials for Nocturnal Animals in the autumn of that year, the concept of a fashion designer helming a Hitchcockian psychological thriller filled me with dread. The campaign played out like some kind of mismanaged vanity project, topped off with sickly runway sheen and gaudy, self-absorbed vanity. It reeked of the kind of mindless materialism peddled by the entertainment tabloids – a barrage of product-placement porn, dizzying visuals and superstar cameos. My trepidation was only made worse when I realised Nocturnal Animals wasn’t defining itself as blockbuster entertainment. This was a movie operating under the ruse of art. It starred actors I admired and respected. So when I eventually settled in to a sparsely attended midnight screening at the Canary Wharf Cineworld in London, my expectations were (to put it mildly) cynically defined. What followed was a methodical humbling, and one of the most thoroughly surprising cinematic experiences I’ve ever had.
Based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony & Susan, Nocturnal Animals chronicles the life of Susan Morrow, a wealthy art dealer lapping up the heady opulence of LA life. Her ultra-modernist house is sleek, shapely and pristine. Played by a brilliantly icy Amy Adams, she’s draped in gorgeous garments, meticulously made-up like a kitschy runway belle. She’s popular, fashionable and well-liked. Her husband is a handsomely dressed Armie Hammer. They’re a damn good-looking pair, living a damn good-looking life. From the outside, this is a woman who seems to have it all.
As these sequences play out, the pleasantries begin to falter. The more beauty we’re subjected to, the more everything in Susan’s world seems implicitly artificial. Everything drips with chic pretension. Though undoubtedly dazzling, the sheer amount of affectation quickly becomes unsettling. These grandiose designs stink of overcompensation. There’s something awry in this world. Something a bit too perfect… a bit too clean.
One day, Susan receives an unsolicited package in the mail. Tearing open the envelope, the camera reveals a manuscript for a yet-unpublished novel entitled Nocturnal Animals. Recognising the name listed beneath the title, Susan acknowledges a personal connection. The listed author is Edward Sheffield; her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). This book serves as his figurative testament to the disintegration of their marriage. As Susan tentatively thumbs through this metaphorical tale of treachery and betrayal, her imaginings are visualised as a distinct narrative strand of the film.
Playing out with the gloomy strokes of noirish westerns like The Coen Brothers’ stunning No Country for Old Men (2007), these scenes form a gritty account of unspeakable tragedy, replete with stand-out ensemble performances from gruff, vigilante Sherriff Michael Shannon and the appallingly unhinged Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Jake Gyllenhaal is also outstanding here, skilfully guiding us through the excruciating hardships of Edward's imagined altar-ego, Tony. Filmed in a gorgeously evocative 35mm palette, Ford balances this abrasive fantasy with bitter-sweet flashbacks to the early days of Edward and Susan’s relationship, intercutting both of these narratives with the hollow art world Susan inhabits in the present day. The balance is perfectly managed and beautifully constructed. A conservative matriarch (played by a radiantly fierce Laura Linney) soon reveals the source of Susan’s mindless quest of status over soul, as disparities separating art from avarice steadily begin to materialise. Back in the present day, the sadness of these sequences is punctuated by Susan’s slow acclimation to what she lost. Trading in her chance at happiness for the labels and lavishness that so often characterise the real-life worlds Tom Ford operates within, it was this self-aware element that left me totally enamoured with the brilliance of the filmmaking on display.
Framing this ostentation as mere pomp would be wrong. Within minutes we learn of Susan’s financial and marital woes. As we delve deeper into the dire dreamscapes of the LA art world, a satirical edge emerges, but it isn’t overplayed or overstated. Like the better David Lynch offerings, this level of façade and artifice is a showy veneer for horrors that lurk silently beneath the surface. And of course, I’d be foolish to deny the elegance of Tom Ford’s diligent crafted designs. The juxtaposition of these sumptuous visuals with empty, miserable lives is a potent contrast that only serves to underline the thematic focus of the film. Intelligently picking apart the coatings and smokescreens of attractiveness, Ford’s movie asks us to question and query the very nature of beauty itself. After all, what is all this splendour worth if it isn’t substantiated with something meaningful, or something that extends beyond surface? Susan may be the definitive incarnation of success and allure, but ultimately, she is hollow inside, barely cloaking the misery that skulks within. A Nocturnal Animal indeed.
Consider the film’s much-maligned opening sequence. Naked, overweight women gyrate and revolve around the screen in slow-motion, adorned with emblematic pom-poms and miniaturised American flags. Some bear tissue scars. Those repulsed by these images are the same people consoled by the squeaky-clean flamboyance of Susan’s life. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, but more importantly, it’s something that transcends the superficial. We may perceive the nude dancers as distasteful or objectionable, but why don’t we extend the same level of dismay to the pristine vistas of LA and its lasciviousness? After all, isn’t this hypocrisy the perfect encapsulation of the film’s overarching message? Foregrounding his film with images antithetical to his immaculate reputation, Ford invites us to question the concepts and ideas that populate his profession. A brave undertaking pays off. We’re left with a wonderfully crafted film that instilled me with a new-fangled admiration for both Tom Ford the filmmaker and, perhaps more surprisingly, Tom Ford the fashion designer.
Ironically, the women who open this film are more comfortable and self-assured than Susan ever will be. They’re perfectly content with who they are. They don’t need to create elaborately adorned worlds to overcorrect their insecurities. Susan, on the other hand, operates within the stifling, repressive sheen of glass houses and garish get-togethers, discontent with a status-driven life that is ultimately dead and meaningless. As Abel Korzeniowski’s bending string sections evoke that Hermann-esque combination of unease and pathos, the tragedy comes full-circle. The ending plays out, and we realise the excellence of what we’ve just watched. A fantastically constructed reprisal, and a tragic, irreparable situation: one for a man who lost it all, the other for a woman who did the same.
Nocturnal Animals is currently available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Amazon Prime