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In an industry where success is so quickly forgotten, it’s a bold move to go over half a decade without following up a promising start. Tom Ford’s 2009 directorial debut A Single Man was stylish and showed great potential in the fashion designer-turned-filmmaker, but it’s taken seven years for him to go about fulfilling that potential. Still, there’s something to be said for biding your time and waiting for the right story to come along, even if that story is from 1993. Ford’s long-awaited follow-up, Nocturnal Animals (based on the Austin Wright novel Tony and Susan), is worth the wait – thought-provoking from beginning to end, and probably one of the most interesting films you’ll see all year.
Mired in a loveless marriage to second husband Hutton, Susan Morrow receives a novel manuscript from estranged first love Edward, from whom she separated some 20 years previously. The novel tells the story of Tony Hastings, who is travelling across Texas with wife Laura and daughter India when they are aggressively halted by a trio of intimidating youths. They demand that Tony pay for the damage caused by their reckless driving, in exchange for replacing his punctured tyre. He agrees but feels threatened by the men, who scuffle with him and harass, then kidnap, his family. These scenes are incredibly intense and disconcertingly suspenseful to watch, which may seem odd, considering we know these are scenes from Edward’s novel, and therefore fictional.
But just how much of it is fictional? Edward’s novel is introduced early on, and until further details are drip-fed to us we have no way of knowing just how much of it is based on the author’s life. Both Edward and Tony are played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and from what little we know of the two men, they are ostensibly the same person. Indeed, Edward tells Susan that he believes everybody writes about themselves. Susan and Laura are played by Amy Adams and Isla Fisher respectively, and good luck telling those two apart from a distance. And in both reality and the novel, the couple have a red-headed daughter – the similarities go on. The novel is not literally true: the car chase never happened, and neither did the rapes and murders that follow. But people do not react to complete fiction in the way that Susan reacts here without a just cause. There must be some truth to it, even if it is only a symbolic truth.
As Susan reads, she recalls her past with Edward, who she loved more than she could ever love distant Hutton. But he was a romantic who saw writing as his true calling; she was a cynic who could only see a career as an art director rather than an artist, despite her talents. He became angry at her for doubting his ability; she grew frustrated with him for not living in the real world. Their marriage just fell apart gradually over time – the worst, yet most common way that things do fall apart. It’s difficult to judge Edward’s motivations for writing a story so divorced from reality, as we only see him as a fresh-faced college graduate, pre-marriage. Perhaps his story represents a way of making himself heard in a way that he found impossible before. Drifting apart from his wife, Edward was helpless. Now he is empowered. The novel is his way of making Susan feel what he felt when she cheated on him two decades previously. His own suffering could not make her understand, so he projected that suffering onto someone else, then dialled it up to eleven. She broke his heart, and this is his carefully crafted revenge. 20 years in the making.
Nocturnal Animals looks beautiful, sounds beautiful and has an outstanding cast who fire on all cylinders for the duration. And yet…I don’t know. It’s intensely frustrating to me. What the film gives us are two compelling narratives woven together in a way which is cinematically appealing, but thematically confusing. Trying to draw parallels between the story of Edward and Susan’s failed marriage and Tony and Laura’s violently severed one is like trying to find meaning in surrealist art. You know that everything you see must be there for a reason and yet the reason escapes you. Perhaps, as art, this film is not intended to be understood, only appreciated for the fine piece of craftsmanship that it is. It may require a second viewing to fully recognise Nocturnal Animals for what it was intended to be. But even if you can’t fully comprehend it, you can still admire it. I know I did. I only hope we don’t have to wait seven more years for Tom Ford’s next film. Cinema needs more directors like him, and more films like this one.
Nocturnal Animals is screening at The Dukes from Saturday Week 7 to Thursday Week 8.