Tom Ford took to filmmaking like an extremely well-connected, already famous and privileged duck to water with his first effort, A Single Man. A duck with the kind of access to finance and A-listers that’s beyond most first time duck directors. But anyway, for me, that one was style over substance – but, to be fair, what style. For the follow-up, Ford adapts Tony Austin’s 1993 novel, Tony and Susan, with another remarkable cast, including Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Laura Linney, Armie Hammer, Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen. Adams plays Susan, an LA gallery owner who receives her ex-husband’s novel in the mail. While reading the violent and upsetting story, she remembers their time together, as well as how it ended. Gyllenhaal plays her ex-husband (Edward), as well as the protagonist of his novel (Tony).
I saw this a couple of days after Arrival and in some ways they’re of a piece – high-profile entries in the ‘Amy Adams remembers stuff’ genre. In Arrival she thought a lot about her daughter; in this she thinks a lot about her ex. It’d be nice to see her in a role where she can live in the present for a change. The film opens with an extremely arresting sequence of larger ladies dancing naked in slow motion, the kind of thing that only a director like Tom Ford can probably get away with, though I’m not sure why. We then learn about Susan’s life, trapped in a loveless marriage to uber-smarm Armie Hammer (well cast), sitting in a modernist mansion feeling sad and going to dinner parties with horrendous people.
We then escape into the book, which is a gritty tale of Tony and his wife and daughter being run off the road by Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s redneck crew, with terrible consequences. Michael Shannon is the tobacco spitting cop who’s prepared to bend the rules somewhat to help Jake find justice. Aside from Susan in the present, and Tony in the novel, the third strand is Edward and Susan’s history together.
The problem for me was fairly straightforward: the novel sections are kind of like a Coen brothers film, with another film wrapped around them. The issue is that the Coen brothers film is much, much more interesting than the other film. The slightly mopey concerns of the filthy rich bourgeois gallery owner, and her poor choices in men, are pretty hard to care about, compared to the jeopardy in the book. On top of that, Michael Shannon’s Detective Bobby is much more interesting than any other character in the film, to the point that I found myself wishing they’d just made a film about him. It also felt overscored, with a little too much signposting in the soundtrack and not enough room for drama to percolate.
Other critics I spoke to had less lukewarm attitudes to the film, and it’s true that Gyllenhaal and Adams do strong work; Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography keeps the aesthetic in line with the luxuriant polish you’d expect from Tom Ford; and a supporting cast with the likes of Sheen, Riseborough and particularly Shannon is always going to keep things lively. But I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t slightly disappointing. Perhaps that was due to the slightly enigmatic ending (to put it kindly). Or perhaps it just wasn’t that great.
Nocturnal Animals premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2016. It is currently showing at selected UK cinemas.
Photos courtesy of Focus Features.