Tom Ford’s second feature, the wonderfully named Nocturnal Animals, confirms him as a filmmaker interested in exploring interiority by paying close attention to the surface of things. Though I haven't revisited Ford's debut A Single Man since it screened seven years ago, I recall being struck by the beauty of its costumes (no surprise there), interiors and cinematography and Colin Firth's moving performance as a British widower in the grips of depression and suicidal ideation. The film's pedantic attention to mis-en-scene articulated not only a aesthetic sensitivity but also a compelling sense of interiority that deftly shifted between on the one hand a crushing melancholy and on the other, a kind of wonder.
In Nocturnal Animals, also an adaptation of a novel, Ford shifts his attention to a haunted American; in this film the tone is considerably darker. Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful but fragile gallery owner whose marriage to an emotionally unavailable alpha male is in difficulty. She receives a package in the mail from her first husband, the 'sensitive' Edward (Jake Gyllenhall), who Susan left in her mid-twenties because he could not fulfil her material ambitions.
The arrival of the package, which contains a proof of his soon to be published novel, provokes a crisis in Susan. The film unfolds in noir fashion, as a film within a film, cutting between the present, the world of the novel and the past.
The novel casts Susan and Edward as parents to a teenaged daughter on a road rip that ends in a run-in with a car load of hoons in the dead of night on stretch of lonely Texas road. I found viewing this sequence harrowing, not simply because it draws out the victimisation of its female characters but for the film's preoccupation with Edward's inability to protect his wife and daughter. In short, it calls into question his masculinity. When he is taunted by his adversary, he is called a vagina. The fictional scenario imagined by Edward is a masochistic reimagining of Susan's rejection of him. This is not a film in which anyone moves on, so to speak. Instead it seems to be in the thrall of the agony of loss, and where that leads. Nowhere healthy, is the short answer. Given the constraining ideas that the film exhibits in relation to gender – how it is felt, lived and performed by men and women – Nocturnal Animals makes an argument that the injured ego retreats to the symbolic. In its preoccupation of what it means to be a man, and by association a woman it feels strangely rigid and inflexible.
At its most engaging Nocturnal Animals arranges the events of the novel, Susan's memories of the past and the demands of her present life to intersect in a fragmented reverie. But it's not without its oddities. Ford is a Romantic; he is very invested in Susan and Edward's first marriage and very hard on Susan for not believing more in Edward's promise. But is it cause for revenge? I had a hard time buying it.