There are certain expectations when you hear a celebrated fashion designer has directed a feature length film; namely that the end result will be absolutely sumptuous to look at, but will prioritise style over substance by default. Tom Ford’s 2009 directorial debut A Single Man all but emphasised this; it took a moving narrative and made it tortuously dull, all whilst maintaining a spectacular visual flair. In the years since, Ford’s debut has managed to maintain plenty of critical accolades, whilst his own standing in the fashion world has increased significantly. After all, you know you’ve made it when Jay-Z namechecks you in one of his songs.
Nocturnal Animals, his long awaited sophomore directorial effort, has been gestating for such a sustained period of time, its arrival feels like a bona fide arthouse event. Now, I can finally see what all the fuss is about with Ford. His visual instincts are unparalleled, but this film transcends mere style over substance as he has the perfect narrative to juxtapose the imagery with: a trashy work of metafictional pulp. The Girl on the Train can move over, as Nocturnal Animals deserves the honour of being crowned this year’s Gone Girl. After all, it is the first film since David Fincher’s 2014 effort to apply a meticulous directorial style to a trashy paperback thriller, even if Ford is reluctant to subvert any genre cliches. He wallows in all the standard narrative beats in each of the three interlinked storylines, but he does them in such an assured way, it feels as if we are seeing them play out for the first time.
Over a decade after their separation, artist Susan (Amy Adams) receives the manuscript for a new novel written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). As she reads the novel, she becomes engrossed in the narrative – and starts to become obsessed with the parallels it presents to her own doomed former relationship.
I have seen a few reviews noting that the movie is too “arty” for both mainstream audiences and the forthcoming awards season. Although awards are irrelevant for a movie in this vein, despite the prowess Ford clearly has behind the camera, the claim that this movie is more suited to cinephiles is entirely dumbfounded. Despite the meta element, this follows all the beats you’d expect from a mainstream thriller – just utilised with care, in order to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Only the soon to be notorious opening credits sequence, presumably a sly parody of Ford’s own fashion designer background that proves pretty irrelevant to the film as a whole, will likely prove off-putting. Although it is undeniably the most striking credits sequence of the year, I was still waiting for the symbolism to become relevant later on. The closest I got was noticing two extras who bore striking resemblances to the faces used in this satirically body positive introduction. Similarly, the ending will also confound many expecting a clear resolution, even though the story-within-a-story (which takes up the majority of the running time) climaxes pretty conclusively.
Ford’s film is likely going to be one of the biggest treats in an awards season when many filmmakers are angling for prestige respectability. He has managed to whip up an A-list cast and get them to have the time of their lives rolling around in this glorious trash pile. The Amy Adams leading role credit seems inexplicable; she has barely 15 minutes of screen time, with only flashback sequences affording her any opportunity to emotionally engage with the role. Luckily, the story within a story is an acting powerhouse.
Of course, by now you should expect first class performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon – the latter doesn’t even appear to be acting, so much as he is channelling the mental image the audience collectively shares of his unexpected celebrity persona, playing it up for dark laughs. Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal’s turn as a distraught father is ripe with paranoid menace and may be the most restrained performance in the entire film – I was left yearning for a version of Nightcrawler where he wasn’t heightening his crazier tics and was instead letting his damaged nature slowly seep through, just as he does here.
Yet the real MVP in a stacked cast list, many of whom admittedly only appear for one scene, is unexpectedly Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Although electric in Kick-Ass, he has coasted by in the intervening years performing entirely underwhelming roles, forging a niche with Sam Worthington and Charlie Hunnam in the “bland leading men” category. Here, he is given the most over the top role and displays a chameleonic power to transform from pretty boy action hero to a genuinely threatening presence – with a penchant for crazy that even hints that he’s been taking acting lessons from Nicolas Cage. It is the most gleefully trashy role, which he manages to make seem larger than life, all while fitting neatly into the ever-so-slightly heightened reality of the film.
Although the film will do nothing to calm doubts that he prioritises style over substance, the strength of the ensemble should highlight that Tom Ford knows how to work with actors. I personally found substance buried beneath this meticulously created oddball world of pulp thanks to the strong performances, but many others will find nothing more than cinematic artifice. Nocturnal Animals is as enjoyable as an arthouse movie can be; perfect for the Saturday night popcorn crowds and midweek, introspective cineaste audiences alike. Ford is no stranger to creating fashion statements – and here on the big screen, he’s delivered his most striking one yet.