Such was the impact of “A Single Man,” former Gucci stylist Tom Ford’s filmmaking debut seven years ago, that you had to wonder what he would do next. Was this astonishingly emotional film an anomalous one-hit wonder or was its creator, from an entirely different business, really that adept at filmmaking on his very first go?
“Nocturnal Animals,” his second feature, which arrived in theaters last month, provides a mixed answer. As much as anything Ford designs films just as he did his clothing lines: here sleek visual patterns and an uncanny eye for telling details, startling effects and a lush musical score keep you riveted to the screen.
In “Nocturnal Animals,” in fact, he deploys two contrasting visual styles as suits its story-within-a-story narrative design that maintains three entirely different story strands.
Yet the film itself is largely unsatisfying, not only because it’s so uneven, even cloddish at times, but more crucially it’s as cold as ice, lacking the empathy and humanity that made “A Single Man” such a dramatic winner.
Worst of all the film lacks any subtlety or subtext. The characters speak right on the money throughout, laying out all the thematic concerns in the dialogue in the off chance an audience member won’t grasp the implications of dual storylines.
In its leaps from camp melodrama to trashy crime thriller to violent revenge fantasy, the movie keeps an audience busy: no one is going to complain of boredom with a movie that begins with in-your-face opening shots of aging, obese women dressed in drum-majorette accessories but otherwise naked, dancing in front of a red curtain like burlesque dancers unaware their expiration dates have long passed.
The embarrassment of having to watch the humiliation of these women, hired to work in a movie after all, grows even more intense when you realize they are part of an art “installation” curated by our heroine, Susan (Amy Adams). This doesn’t put you in a fuzzy mood toward a coldly cerebral protagonist.
But then, clearly, Ford doesn’t want you to care much for anybody in this story. At least none of the “real” people. The fictional ones fare better — or worse— either decent victims or vicious sociopaths.
The dichotomy in Ford’s tale, adapted from the late American novelist Austin Wright’s 1993 book “Tony and Susan,” is established early. During a gathering of sleek “beautiful people” in a setting worthy of a Vanity Fair layout the fey husband (Michael Sheen in a cameo) of Susan’s bejeweled Best Girl Pal extols the virtues of the shallow lifestyle of a one-percenter and then confides to her, “Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.”
Susan is plagued, however, with doubts. This world she strove so hard to achieve, tossing aside, you will soon learn, a first husband who wasn’t going to get her there, is making her dissatisfied, cynical and detached from the business dealmaker husband (Armie Hammer) who did get her there.
She has resumed being a “nocturnal animal,” which is what her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) used to call his chronically insomniac wife. Which, it turns out, is also the title of a novel Edward has just written. After not speaking to her for years, he has suddenly sent the manuscript to her prior to publication.
Her first surprise is the title itself. The second is the book’s dedication to her.
As she reads the manuscript, the movie abruptly changes from Susan’s coolly composed, architecturally post-modern Los Angeles to that of Edward’s imagination, a gritty West Texas highway to hell, a tale of intimidation and brutality that features two actors who cannot exemplify True Grit more — Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon.
You are asked — no, this is a demand — to see in this tawdry crime tale about a man’s forced separation from his family by a bunch of backcountry rednecks the symbolic playing out of the author’s long-ago betrayal by Susan. She didn’t just dump him, it turns out; she absolutely violated his world.
In the story within the story, Tony (Gyllenhaal again, in case anyone is slow to figure out the symbolism) heads off with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher but with red hair evoking Adams’) and brattish teen daughter India (Elle Bamber) on a vacation that gets waylaid on a highway in the dead of night by three taunting, vicious rednecks in two separate cars, a posse headed by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
In the terrible aftermath of the trio’s crimes, a cowboy sheriff (Shannon) gets involved with Tony to find the perpetrators and bring the devastated man a sense of justice.
Susan’s ex is, of course, rubbing everything in her face, reminding her of betrayals through the story’s brutal crimes even as they evoke in the reader her own doubts about a crumbling marriage and the hollowness of the world she has claimed as her own.
As the novel story unfolds, Ford then begins to flashback to scenes from Susan and Edward’s courtship, marriage and break-up. These are the last satisfying of all the sequences in that so much is skipped over that you get only the barest of bones.
In New York, she pursues Edward, her mother furiously objects to a marriage to someone not her daughter’s “equal” — this in a withering scene with Laura Linney playing the mother as a cartoon of bigoted, Republican wealth — followed by a scene between Susan and Edward in which Susan, as her mother predicted, has become her mother.
It’s that blatant. Mom warns daughter; next scene daughter confirms the warning.
The novel possibly conveyed more material about this love found and lost, which novels have the time and space to do. But the film version rushes through these sequences so quickly that all subtlety gets abandoned.
In the one-percenter sequences, Ford is so busy mocking the shallowness and pretensions that whatever satirical thrust they have is lost to sheer cartoonishness. In one, an art gallery staffer is dressed in an absurd high-fashion getup that no woman would ever wear. In another, a gallery directress has had such bad cosmetic surgery that her lips swell as if stung by bees and eyebrow fly northward off her face.
If Ford gets any laughs here, they’re highly uncomfortable ones.
The simmering tensions within Susan’s second marriage fail to register since Hammer as her husband plays only one note — so bored with his trophy wife he can barely look at her or barely conceal his contempt. Not much to go on here as to why Susan has failed so terribly at matrimony twice.
In the West Texas sequences, the “fictional” ones if you will, Ford, his production designer Shane Valentino and d.p. Seamus McGarvey credibly evoke the empty spaces where the law barely exists and inhabitants are more than willing to take advantage of this fact.
Abel Korzeniowski’s score nicely evokes Hitchcock, which certainly embraces the nerve-wracking tensions that accompany much of the lurid tale. Meanwhile the sleek interiors of the art gallery and Susan’s home look almost futuristic although I take them for real L.A. locations not sets.
There might be something interesting here, seeing things in present day that look oddly out of place, seeming to belong more to a repellent future. But I’m not sure that’s what’s intended.
No mistaking anything else intended though. Ford hammers home his themes with pile-driving obstinacy. But, as he did with Colin Firth’s nuanced performance in “A Single Man,” he gets fine work from Adams, Gyllenhaal and Shannon that keeps you in the movie from start to finish. Stylistic flourishes too grab you so Ford again displays formidable filmmaking skills. These just got lavished on a shallow, cynical story.
Opened: November 18, 2016 (Focus Features)
Production companies: Fade to Black in association with Artina Films
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Karl Glusman, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Ellie Bamber, Jena Malone, Kristin Bauer van Straten
Director-screenwriter: Tom Ford
Based on the novel by: Austin Wright
Producers: Tom Ford, Robert Salerno
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Shane Valentino
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
Costume designer: Arianne Phillips
Editor: Joan Sobel
R rating, 117 minutes