“You know me, I never sleep.”
Bats, badgers, werewolves. None feature in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. The closest we get to an actual beast of the night is Michael Shannon accusing someone of being an owl. Instead, Tom Ford serves up a sumptuous slice of the most stylish thrills on offer all year.
Ford’s long-awaited follow-up to the acclaimed A Single Man is a tale of love, loss and lust, following the misery of art gallery owner, Susan (Adams). Haunted by her past, she fails to sleep in the bed she made herself. Her fragility is tested when she receives a book, written by her ex-husband, dedicated in her name. Flitting between on-page and on-screen narrative, the book plagues Susan’s reality, torturing her with remembrance of her life with slackjawed charmer Edward (Gyllenhaal), and leaving her with a feeling of unease from the book’s disturbing content. The narrative Susan reads is truly terrifying. Tony’s story is one that’ll make sure you never feel settled again, and that’s without a personal subtext.
Ford weaves the two stories together with a fluidity that rarely leaves one portion lacking for the other. Whilst the book has all the action, the realtime story holds the heft of the substance. The book provides a shot of adrenaline, a pulse, building tension at near-break-neck speed. From the moment the daughter’s phone service drops in the opening chapter, one is pushed, agonisingly, to the edge of their seat, fingernails ready to be devoured.
It is here we see Gyllenhaal, now playing the fictional Tony, at his most gaunt since Nightcrawler. He is another creature here though, as a man ravaged with guilt and helplessness after devastating tragedy strikes. Shannon, as an unmoving Burt-Reynolds-type, swoops in to lift Tony up and help sweep up the mess. The pair are positively decrepit by the climax, wheezing in and out of scenery, looking ready to shatter with the most gentle of touches. Their antagonist, an utterly repulsive Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is a brilliant source of hatred, his mutton-chopped swine, seeming ever more evil each time he opens his mouth. The relationship that ensues between the three is a chilling and explosive ride, one powerful enough to create a first-rate thriller standing alone.
But that is not Ford’s style. Layered on top, below and between this painful story, is a wretched parable of mistrust and its consequences. Each page turn reopens old wounds in Susan’s mind, her wide-eyed, heavy make-up-ed exterior flickering as its defence is breached. Adams only continues to amaze, a most different character than her Arrival role, but one equally as impressive. Her sadness is quiet but screams.
I had fears, seemingly naive ones, that Nocturnal Animals could end up as style looming over substance. I was mistaken. Ford is only indulgent when appropriate, with Michael Sheen’s one scene Purple Panther, and if anything, style comes to take a back seat. It seeps out of every pore, drapes every inch of scenery and frames every development, but it is Ford’s dedication to his layered approach, knitting dramatic twists with subtle poignancies, that makes Nocturnal Animals a film worth experiencing. I came out of Nocturnal Animals feeling like I’d been a part of an art form, like I’d been on an odyssey, like I’d faced one of my most deep-seated fears and come out the other side, shaken but standing. It is not perfect, sometimes failing to do much but raise the pulse, but it is a piece of art that you can never take your eyes off of.
Images courtesy of NewNowNext, the Guardian and Time respectively and respectfully.