If there were any questions left on Tom Ford’s directorial skills, Nocturnal Animals has answered them all. After his 2009 debut, A Single Man, the 55-year old fashion designer-turned-director comes back to Venice with Nocturnal Animals, a poignant and gripping tale that feels like something in between a thriller and a brutal satire of modern-day Los-Angeles’ socialites, shot with a confidence one would hardly expect from a director’s second feature.
But Ford is known for his ability to take everyone by surprise, and after his memorable entry into the world of film-making, he writes, directs and produces yet another visually mesmerising film that conveys a mixture of angst and nostalgia that stays with the viewer until the very last shot.
Susan (Amy Adams) is a Texas-born thirty-something year-old who works in an art gallery in LA. She is married to a successful business man (Armie Hammer) and lives in a dream-house overlooking Los Angeles’ skyline. Yet we know from the start hers is not a happy life. She hobnobs with LA artists who appear to be more concerned with their latest plastic surgeries than the art they make, a world which, in the memorable words of a colleague of hers, may be empty, but surely feels a lot less painful than the real one. Things change the day she receives a gruesome thriller freshly written by her former husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), and the novel makes her realise just how much she gave up to live the comfortable existence she now enjoys.
To some extent, Nocturnal Animals is neither revolutionary nor experimental. There are countless of films that deploy the catalyst which Ford uses to set the drama in motion: someone writes a book, that book becomes part of the film, and eventually the characters on the big screen end up relating with what was written, so that the book and the film become two intertwined worlds. But we do not know, and will only found out as the movie goes on, whether the book tells a story that Susan and Tony lived through during their years together. We do not know just what it is that attracts Susan so spasmodically about the novel and whether the book will reveal an abominable truth about her own life.
Ford is deliberately elusive about the subject, and this helps to keep the audience stuck to their seat until the film’s heart breaking ending. The camera shifts from the book to the movie effortlessly, and the transitions make for some visually stunning shots. All throughout Nocturnal Animals, Ford skilfully plays with the geometry of each scene, so much so that there are some that feel like movable paintings, in which the characters’ bodies look like perfectly crafted statues in a museum.
But this does not turn Nocturnal Animals into a collection of beautifully designed images, or – worse still – a celebration of the artificial world Susan inhabits. Far from it, LA’s arts scene and its inhabitants are constantly mocked, as Ford’s screenplay shifts back and forth from thriller to satire, ridiculing the junk-culture which Susan and her colleagues feed upon. It is this eclecticism that helps turning Nocturnal Animals into a remarkable film. Ford has written, produced and directed a film that is a joy to watch, and leaves you longing for more. It took him seven years to come back to Venice with his second feature. Hopefully the third will arrive much quicker.