Saturday 3 December 2016

Nocturnal Animals (USA 2016: Dir Tom Ford)

Wow, 2016 may have had a slow start (film wise, that is) but the second half of the year has delivered some sensational films, of which Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals is a great example.

His first movie, 2009's A Single Man, left me decidedly cold, all calculated surface and mannered performances - something you'd expect from a former commercial fashion designer, Ford's previous occupation. But his adaptation of Austin Wright's 1993 novel 'Tony and Susan,' although teasing with the same apparent superficiality, has a slowly coiling tension within which, like the character of Susan in the film, engrossed in reading the book dedicated to her, occasionally made me gasp out loud.

Amy Adams (a mass of neuroses and anxious glances) plays Susan Morrow, an art collector and exhibitor whose gallery has all the warmth of a chest freezer. She is cool and remote as befits the world she moves in. Susan's husband Hutton, we learn immediately, is good looking, also distant, and involved in an affair that he does little to hide.

Susan receives a parcel in the post, and asks her assistant to open it and read the note inside (a nice touch which says a lot about her life). Inside is the manuscript of a book, written and dedicated to her by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield, who she left for Hutton because she was fed up with Sheffield's constantly heightened emotional state. With Hutton away on 'business' Susan settles down to read the book, the contents of which are depicted to us on screen over several 'readings.' The story-within-a-story is also a roman à clef, telling the tale of a family - husband Tony, wife and daughter - forced off the road by thugs, with the women abducted and later killed. Tony - who in Susan's imagining of the story is actually Edward Sheffield (although he remains unseen in Susan's 'real world') - teams up with a Texas cop with a limited life expectancy and a determination to get his man (Michael Shannon, a truly great actor). Together they hunt down the killers in decidedly unorthodox ways over a number of years.

'Nocturnal Animals' the book is a nasty piece of work. Grisly and violent, with an emotional undercurrent at times almost too much to bear, Susan's Peckinpah-esque mental realisation of the book is one of the first clues to the film's subtext and her own troubled mind. Through flashbacks to her past with Edward she instinctively visualises Sheffield as the Tony character, and as the story progresses - through a combination of those flashbacks and hints at Edward's character in the story - the reasons why Susan divorced him and why she may have bitterly regretted that decision emerge. As 'Nocturnal Animals' unfolds Tony/Edward searches for the strength to avenge his wife and daughter's deaths, and Susan gradually comes to understand her ex-husband, as events in the book mirror her own experiences, in ways she never could in real life.

This is a desperately unhappy film, right through to its forlorn conclusions. While not perhaps as worryingly glacial as, say, Nicolas Winding Refn's The Neon Demon, it certainly inhabits the same environment. Susan's gallery is almost comic in its sterility - the opening scene of braying artistic types, ignoring a group of obese naked dancing women, filmed in slow motion and offered up as art, is both distasteful and disorientating. One of the gallery's recent acquisitions is a large work of art with a single word. 'revenge,' painted on it (it's tempting to see this as a portent but to view the novel as Edward's own revenge is far too simplistic). Susan's world is cold and heartless but it's a world in which she has chosen to wallow, allowing her to marry a man in symaptico with the coolness and detachment she has chosen following her divorce from Edward. In interviews Ford has declared Nocturnal Animals a romance which warns about the danger in relationships of giving up too easily. But it's also an extremely internal film about perception and reality - a deconstructionist's wet dream - and it also offers a rather scathing take on the director's former profession.

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