There are many flares of ingenuity in the sophomore directorial effort of Tom Ford, but perhaps the most important and telling is the title he chose. In adapting the 1993 novel Tony and Susan, written by Austin Wright, Ford opted for the title of a work of fiction within the fiction: Nocturnal Animals. Not only is that a far more elegant name to hang on a film, it offers an intriguing insight into the darkness that exist in and around the characters that move across Ford’s meticulous images.
The film stars Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, an art gallery director who’s coming off of a sensational opening that has left her feeling hollow. If Ford can be said to have a specialty all of two films into a cinematic career, it’s depicting the way prestige and financial comfort are a poor salve against internal agonies. Susan’s wounds are hit with a dash of lemon juice when she receives a slender package containing the galley proofs of a novel written by her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Dedicated to her and borrowing a title from an old description he reserved for her, the book tells a grim story that begins with a cross-country road trip and gets more dire and it rolls along.
Ford ricochets between Susan reading the book, a dramatic rendering of the events of the novel, and flashbacks to Susan’s past with Edward. To a degree, the pieces are shards of mirror reflecting each other, less providing mutual comment than a set of tensile spiderweb connections. Much as there are clear corollaries, Ford’s instinct for emotional chill imposes a heavy touch of mystery. Circles are completed, but Ford seems more engaged by the fractures and schisms. Even when he draws elements together, he emphasizes the gaps left in between rather than the places where it coheres.
In addition to the narrative shifts, there are significant tonal swerves that take place. Nearly every scene in Susan’s current world is shot in the same icy precision that could sometimes make Ford’s moving, powerful A Single Man comes across as visually anguished. In comparison, the flashbacks have a striking directness and the internal fiction moves with a floridness that recalls the willfully sleazy thrillers of the early nineteen-nineties. The performances follow suit, with Adams working small wonders with moments of withdrawn contemplation and Gyllenhaal admirably giving it his all, even if he sometimes neglects the touch of tempering that can add notes of truth.
If the ambition of Nocturnal Animals can sometimes be so forbidding that it threatens to push the audience aside, at least it’s ambition. I’ll admit to a touch of judgment when Ford declared himself a moviemaker, but my preemptive disdain was misguided. Anyone who is going to create works as challenging as this fully deserve their place behind the camera.