Imagine The Hours, but in this version Julianne Moore’s character, instead of reading Mrs. Dalloway, reads an airport thriller, a Lee Childs or James Patterson. That’s more or less the plot of Tom Ford’s sophomore effort Nocturnal Animals, returning to the Lido once more after the warm reception of the fashion designer’s first film A Single Man in 2009. It’s gorgeous, lush and fun, but there’s an underlying silliness to the endeavour which, despite occasional archness, constantly threatens to trivialise events.
Amy Adams plays Susan, a high-end art gallery owner who moves in a rarified atmosphere of provocative modern art exhibitions and droll dinner parties. She lives in a house that itself seems part-gallery, fully staffed with her husband, Walker, a tycoon on the slide played by the resurgent Armie Hammer. Already there is a stifling sense of ennui at the superficiality of it all. “Why do we do what we do?” she asks a campy Michael Sheen, whose jacket makes him look like a Wonka Bar – but the inciting incident is the arrival of a proof copy of a book by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). From the get-go, the book is trouble – she gets a paper cut opening the envelope. ‘First world problems,’ you might be tempted to say but, in fairness, paper cuts are really painful.
With her husband away for business/infidelity, Susan sets about the novel and the film then becomes a series of chapters from the book. Susan’s life and flashbacks to her romance with Edward are interspersed. There’s something of Jim Thompson to the West Texas noir with real grit and suffering contrasting with the mirrors and smoke of Los Angeles. Tony (Gyllenhaal again, though we see him first in this role) and his wife (Isla Fisher) and his daughter (Ellie Bamber) are on a road trip overnight when they are forced off the road by a gang of rowdies, led by a ghoulish Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing a mix between the Funny Games boys and Bob from Twin Peaks. The situation is genuinely frightening and Ford adeptly winds up the tension, forcing us to feel Tony’s helplessness as the situation slides sickeningly from threatening to frightening to deadly.
Meanwhile back to Susan and her board meeting at the gallery and some lame satire about the fauxness of the art world. The transitions between the two are often accomplished with fairly tired clichés: gunshots become birds flying into the window, or a log exploding in the cosy fire; rain becomes Susan taking a melancholy shower. She is disturbed by what she reads and impressed by her ex’s accomplishment, but it is difficult to see what the connection is, unless the whole story is an extended metaphor for their failed relationship. Is the revenge tale itself part of the revenge? Maybe it doesn’t matter. Art is “all junk, junk, junk,” as Susan exclaims. Ford is channelling David Lynch with an eye-slapping opening and his off-kilter, vividly-coloured portrait of a bifurcated America.
Michael Shannon is – as ever – worth the price of admission alone playing a laconic Texan lawman with such insolent verve that even Tommy Lee Jones would harrumph in approval. Laura Linney turns up as Susan’s mother, like an aging southern belle mixed with Margaret Thatcher. Adapted from the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright by Ford, Nocturnal Animals holds enough that’s fascinating and baffling to signal that Ford has a future in cinema if the trousers and shirts business ever goes belly-up.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty