Director: Tom Ford
Writer: Tom Ford; based on Austin and Susan by Austin Right
Cinematographer: Seamus McGarvey
Producer: Tom Ford and Robert Salerno
by Jon Cvack
I had loved A Single Man with Colin Firth’s devastating performance as a college professor who lost his lover in a car accident, now planning to commit suicide. To discover that Tom Ford was a fashion icon was all the more impressive, as aside from the talent is a distinct visual voice. I had missed Nocturnal Animals during the awards season last year, putting off watching it as from the few bits and pieces I saw, it focused at least partially on the Los Angeles art scene, which I find often unbearable to watch in how serious it’s often portrayed.
While I knew the film cut back to a novel, I didn’t anticipate that it’d literally be half of the film. The story involves middle aged LA art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) who has just opened her latest show, which includes morbidly obese women dressed up as Uncle Sam-inspired cheerleaders dancing in the full nude. Susan has grown distant of hiding from her current husband, businessman Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer ) who’s doing a hiding his dalliances with younger women. After the show, Hutton receives a manuscript called “Nocturnal Animals” from her ex-husband who was once an aspiring novelist. She begins to read the book, cutting to Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a 30-something man who’s moving to West Texas with his wife and daughter, when in the middle of nowhere, they’re harassed by a trio of drivers, forced off the road, where the leader Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson; as the film’s greatest character) eventually kidnaps both the wife and daughter. Edward is taken by the other two in a different car, dropped off in the middle of nowhere where he wakes and finds the police, led by Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon); soon discovering his wife and daughter raped and murdered.
The film then cuts in between the two narratives, as Susan reflects on her past relationship with Edward. The two had just begun graduate school. Susan had ambitions of escaping her mother’s conservative and upper class expectations of a mate, falling in love and getting engaged to Edward before finally breaking it off as it was clear his ambitions to live the impecunious life of a struggling writer would fail to provide Susan what she needed; especially after she met the wealthy and well connected Hutton Morrow.
Returning to the novel, Detective Andes eventually tracks down the gang responsible, arresting Ray Marcus on insufficient evidence which soons forces him to release the guy. We then learn that Detective Andes has terminal cancer, convincing Edward to go rogue and take the law into their own hands, as with his own experience, Andes has no sympathy for murder/rapists; enraged by how often the cases are dismissed. They grab Ray Marcus and one of his cronies from the bar and take them back to Andes’ house where they shoot one of the friends, and Marcus falls victim to A coughing paroxysm, allowing Ray Marcus to escape. Edward eventually tracks him down, though before killing Ray, gets hit in the head with a crowbar, quickly dying from a brain hemorrhage.
Susan was told by Edward that they’d meet after finishing the book. She gets dressed up and heads to the restaurant, waiting for hours for Edward who never shows.
IN Jonathan Franzen’s essay collection Father Away, the author mentions the struggle he had with incorporating biography into his narratives; eventually leaning into the idea, knowing it was the only way to capture the voice required. In one recent interview I read about an author’s experience in the prestigious Iowa MFA program, he discussed how his instructor at the Iowa Workshop was able to highlight the portions where were biographical versus those which were fiction; the point being that a great author can melt these worlds with ease.
In Nocturnal Animals, there’s a scene between Edward and Susan as she reads one of his chapters, criticizing that it’s far too much about him, though it wasn’t all that interesting anyway. In the novel portion of the film, we immediately understand what we’re watching - it’s the life he hoped to have with Susan with murders that allowed him to express the heartache he had in losing Susan. When Edward doesn’t show up in the end, the cynic in me wanted to think he committed suicide, as simply failing to show up seemed a mediocre mode of vindication.
A slight problem is that while the movie is solid and the ideas of memory, biography, and ambition are fascinating, the “Nocturnal Animals” story just doesn’t seem like it could play as an entire 300 page or so novel; leaving me to wonder if it too was yet another failure, or if it could have worked better as a short. Additionally, on account of three separate timelines, the love between Edward and Susan never gets well established. We’re able to fill in the loose details and Gyllenhaal’s performance is commanding enough to allow us to feel his pain, but in terms of why they’re together and what they see her,in each ot it all seemed a bit superficial; compounded by introducing an uptight Susan and taking the time to show her more vulnerable side upon returning home.
It’s an excellent movie, making me excited for where Tom Ford goes next. The performances are so good throughout that it helps to mask the film’s minor weaknesses. It’s a film where it’s more fun to watch for the people than any grand examination of art, time, or meaning. In the two worlds of art and literature, where it’s difficult to find success, it’s even more difficult to find a partner willing to put up with poverty and extending the idealism of youth. I was left wanting to see what Edward had to say about writing a book that was evidently pretty good and if it made him any happier, or feel anymore relieved after losing Susan. The tragedy of both characters was in believing that their respective pursuits were going to offer full satisfaction; Susan with a life in a lucrative art gallery and with a rich husband and Edward living poor and writing. I’m not sure if the film ever identifies an inability compromise as the primary villain, but it’s strikingly clear and almost pitifully tragic.
BELOW: One of the most thrilling scenes from the year
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