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David Lynch meets Alfred Hitchcock meets Douglas Sirk in Nocturnal Animals, a sumptuously entertaining noir melodrama laced with vicious crime and psychological suspense, which more than delivers on the promise of A Single Man, writer-director Tom Ford’s first foray behind the camera seven years ago. Confidently dovetailing three strands that depict present and past reality, as well as a dark fictional detour that functions as a blunt real-life rebuke, the movie once again demonstrates that Ford is both an intoxicating sensualist and an accomplished storyteller, with as fine an eye for character detail as he has for color and composition.
An eye-opening sequence that plays under the opening titles features hefty middle-aged burlesque dancers in drum-majorette accessories but otherwise naked, dancing in front of a red curtain. Those who found A Single Man somewhat questionable in its depiction of early-’60s Los Angeles as a place entirely populated by specimens of physical perfection with zero percent body fat and fabulous wardrobes might be tempted to interpret this sequence as Ford’s F.U. response.
The in-your-face images are actually part of an art installation curated by Susan, who long ago abandoned her own artistic ambitions to move into gallery management. While her handsome, philandering second husband Walker (Armie Hammer) has hit a rough patch in his powerbroker dealings, their professional success is reflected in the cold steel, stone and glass fortress in the hills where they live, with Los Angeles spread out below like a glittering carpet.
Adams’ innate vulnerability is nicely played off here against Susan’s sleek appearance, as smooth and painstakingly put-together as the pristine surfaces of the world in which she moves. But she’s plagued by gnawing unhappiness and unable to make the similarly well-heeled and privileged friends in whom she confides understand. “Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world,” says Carlos (Michael Sheen), the gay husband of an eccentric socialite (Andrea Riseborough) who pairs chunky statement jewelry with Liz Taylor’s old hair and caftan. (This couple’s too-brief appearance is a hoot; can someone please write them their own movie?)
Susan’s sense of isolation is compounded when she receives a manuscript from ex-husband Edward, almost 20 years after they last spoke. Its harrowing plot comes to vivid life in her head, with Tony (Gyllenhaal again), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their obnoxiously entitled teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) heading off on vacation. In the movie’s white-knuckle centerpiece sequence, the family is nudged off a lonely stretch of West Texas freeway by rednecks in another vehicle, led by Ray (a chilling Aaron Taylor-Johnson). This being a Tom Ford movie, even the white trash has gorgeous bone structure, but these guys are genuinely menacing. The ugly intensity of their scenes is palpable, as is the terror they unleash.
Back in Los Angeles, Susan is increasingly unsettled as she reads on; her own world begins to mirror that of the book in the fluid overlapping transitions of ace editor Joan Sobel’s tricky scene-structuring. Events in the novel get even more twisted as Tony works with gnarled cowboy detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to find the perpetrators of that fateful night’s brutal crimes. Susan, to whom the book is dedicated, sees Laura as her obvious stand-in, and interprets the fictional character’s grim fate as retribution from her ex-husband. The novel also forces her to acknowledge the growing cracks in her current marriage.
At around that point Ford then begins folding in scenes plucked from the past, back when Susan and Edward were together. She was his sharpest critic during their marriage, her discouragement sapping his drive to become a writer. Laura Linney appears in one delicious scene, channeling Glenn Close to perfection as Susan’s mother, an icy Texan matron who’s all lacquered hair, martinis, pearls and withering condescension. While expressing her stern disapproval of Susan’s plan to marry Edward, whom she views as a weak romantic, she warns her daughter, “Just wait. We all eventually turn into our mothers.” As their marriage hits the rocks, Edward confronts Susan with that uncomfortable reality.
Perhaps the most impressive evidence of Ford’s growth as a director is the complex juggling act he pulls off with the story’s three parallel strands, each of them distinct and yet forming a seamless whole.
The scenes involving Tony and Bobby have the flavorful feel of gritty Western crime but also, in Gyllenhaal’s raw performance, the scalding pain of revenge that barely serves as a Band-Aid to wounds that can never heal. Shannon’s typically idiosyncratic spin on a small-town Texas archetype is no less riveting.
This gruesome drama plays in stark relief against the astutely observed shallowness of the glamorous L.A. art world. Two brief but pricelessly arch scenes in particular stand out, one with Jena Malone as a gallery staffer wearing a sublimely ridiculous high-fashion getup (which looks like it was borrowed from Kristen Stewart in Personal Shopper), and one with the divine Kristin Bauer van Straten as a cosmetic surgery freak with lips like pillows and eyes like daggers.
In terms of visuals, cinematographer Seamus McGarvey plays up the contrasts between the sterile perfection of the Los Angeles environments and the expansive vistas of Texas, with their painterly skies staring down on a lawless land. Production designer Shane Valentino also does striking work finding eerie echoes of the fictional crime in some of the art pieces on display in L.A.
While there was no denying the eye-popping beauty of A Single Man, the movie was so meticulously aestheticized it made Todd Haynes look like Kevin Smith. It also was guilty of being stylistically derivative, with camera sequences and still compositions that often looked like studied imitations of the work of filmmakers like Wong Kar Wai and Pedro Almodovar.
Nocturnal Animals is no less manicured — even the desert shacks could be artfully distressed fashion-shoot locations. And unsurprisingly, the end credits are an orgy of high-end designer names and contemporary American art luminaries. But the sumptuous look here feels very much of a piece with the storytelling as a whole, unequivocally owning its visual signature. The tempestuous strings of Abel Korzeniowski’s lush score provide an additional ballsy flourish, explicitly nodding to Hitchcock and Sirk.
Just as Colin Firth’s achingly nuanced performance drove A Single Man, the invaluable Adams provides the compelling center here. She fully inhabits every flicker of Susan’s complex emotional responses, right through to the quiet gut-punch of the final scene, in which Edward’s payback becomes complete. This is not a drama about atonement or forgiveness, but about unblinking discoveries that dig deep into the decayed carcass of a dead relationship. But the effectiveness of Adams’ performance should by no means imply that this is a one-woman show — every role has been impeccably cast and every actor makes an incisive impression in this ceaselessly gripping stunner.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition); also in Toronto festival
Opens: Friday, Nov. 18
Distributor: 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 Tony and Susan by Austin Wright
Producers: Tom Ford, Robert Salerno
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Shane Valentino
Costume designer: Arianne Phillips
Music: Abel Korzeniowski
Editor: Joan Sobel
Casting: Francine Maisler
Not rated, 117 minutes
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