Beneath the Surface

Film review: Nocturnal Animals (Director: Tom Ford)

By Sascha Krieger

Tom Ford, yes, the famed fashion designer. Yes, he makes films now. Nocturnal Animals  is his second after his remarkable debut A Single Man seven years ago. And yes, the fact that it was made by a designer, a master in polished surfaces, in intricately styled imagery is more than obvious from its first second. Whether it is the ultimately stylish world of the upscale art scene, impeccably beautiful and relentlessly cold and hostile, or the dusty dirt of the forgotten trailer parks and rundown cabins and empty night-time roads of West Texas: Tim Ford’s sets and images are impeccably designed, with almost slavish attention to detail and a tendency for the all too obvious. The elegant is polished to the extent of coldness, the squalor so dirty it almost becomes a cliché. It is these two poles that provide the film with its source of energy. The first belongs to Susan, a wealthy gallery owner, inhabitant of an antiseptic world of absolute beauty, driven to a perfection that it becomes as lifeless as Susan (a very subtle Amy Adams) has tuned into more of an image than a creature of flesh and blood. The other world belongs to Edward (a nuanced master of suffering: Jake Gyllenhaal), or rather his imagination.

The two were married once but separated almost 20 years ago. One day, Susan going through her life’s routines that even she has come to understand as meaningless, he sends her the proof of a yet unpublished novel in which the central character is ambushed on a lonely West Texas road, his wife and daughter kidnapped, raped and murdered and he himself reduced to an instrument of vengeance. He has dedicated the cruel, hopeless book to Susan, an intricate tool of exacting revenge for what she did to him, something that is only ever hinted at. As she reads it, we see the story unfold, with Gyllenhaal playing the protagonist, clearly the author’s alter ego. Repeatedly Ford mirrors the book’s „hero’s“ and Susan’s activities, creating parallels that can never meet – such as the real-life Susan and Edward cannot come together anymore. Soon Susan’s mind drifts to the past, her meeting of and life with Edward which we see on the film’s third narrative level, in quiet, less polished but much warmer images than those of the present. Detail matter: Adams‘ hair is less constrained than in the „present“ while Edward’s boyish openness contrasts strongly with the haggard, painful, worn-out face of the novel’s story.

In the end, all comes down to Susan, she is the source of this story, hers are the eyes we see through. It is her reading we observe and her memory we are shared. So ultimately the viewer gets to see what she wants them to, subjectively filtered, incomplete. Answers are hard to get by while questions abound. And so the story unfolds as the longings of a hardened soul, a regretful yet resigned mind that has shed all that it has deemed unnecessary and unhelpful, that has become an efficient robot, successful but lifeless. When, at the very end, she attempts to inject herself with the life she remembers she once might have been full of she fails.  Yes, the film is very carefully constructed and there are times when its mechanics show a little too clearly. Yes, Adams‘ character is so distant that any attempt at engaging with her is very hard work. And yes, the intricate visual world, the polished surfaces and highly formalised imagery Ford and his cinematographer Seamus McGarvey – assisted by Abel Korzeniowski’s rather penetrant noir-style score – create occasionally lack life, become stills of themselves. And yet, there is something beneath the surface of the cleverly entwined narrative, the expertly executed thriller the film disguises itself as, that rings true. An existential loneliness, a longing thwarted by selfishness and ambition that we see in Adams‘ only apparently dead eyes, a reluctant opening, a hardly noticeable hope that will have to be crushed. There is no way back, we are the decisions we have made. Nocturnal Animals is a beautiful and devastating verdict on human selfishness. Not as complex, intense and formally effortless as A Single Man but a very strong effort nonetheless.


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