It’s safe to say that Nocturnal Animals was one of my most anticipated films of 2016. It’s the second film from fashion-designer-turned-film-director Tom Ford, whose debut – delicate queer tragedy A Single Man – ranks among my favourite films. It took seven years for his follow-up, an adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, to arrive in cinemas; the long wait has been rewarded with a nuanced, precisely-constructed film that – while not quite on par with A Single Man – ranks alongside the year’s best.
Nocturnal Animals is, as you’d expect given Ford’s pedigree, visually sumptuous. The bifurcated narrative spends half its time in rural Texas, and half its time in the opulent upper echelons of the art world, meaning that we’re treated to both ominous shots of the American desert stretching to infinity and sleek modernist art and architecture. As in A Single Man, Ford’s aestheticism far from empty; instead, his images channel a full-throated exploration of the thick layers of artifice cloaking our day-to-day lives.
That artifice is emphasised in the film’s construction, in which one of the two narrative threads –Tony Hastings’ (Jake Gyllenhaal) violent, tragic encounter on a Texan highway – is framed as a manuscript of a novel (sharing the film’s title) written by one Edward Sheffield (also Gyllenhaal). Edward is the ex-husband, from two decades’ prior, of art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), and we see Tony’s story through her eyes. First, as she reads the manuscript and then, gradually, interspersed with rhyming moments in her own life. For example, Ford intercuts footage of her bathing with footage of Tony showering. As Susan delves, chapter by chapter, into the darkness of her ex’s novel, we too delve into the darkness of her past – her history with Edward, and how and where it went wrong.
The most straightforward interpretation of Nocturnal Animals is that Edward’s book operates as revenge-by-proxy, overturning the forgotten bugs and beetles infesting Susan’s past. Based on the film’s final moments, that’s not an inaccurate interpretation. But Ford offers something deeper than a jilted ex probing old wounds; the way the narrative cohesion of Susan’s story increasingly degrades, swerving into flashbacks and even flashes of psychosis, hints at the film’s deeper interrogation of a familiar cinematic theme: the division between reality – or, if you prefer, The Real – and our experience of it.
The film fosters an unnerving ambiguity throughout. The opening credits, for example, overlay lushly-lit footage of nude, fat women cavorting with sparklers against a vibrant red backdrop. It’s a surprising way to open a film, but it’s increasingly unnerving – who are these women, and given the framing, who is their audience? That’s clarified when we cut to the opening of Susan’s latest exhibition – bracketed by huge screens broadcasting the footage to an apparently disinterested audience – but the nervous energy lingers. (As, too, does Ford’s deliberate, thoughtful use of nudity.)
Susan’s life feels antiseptic, artificial; her house is too perfect, while her friends (Andrea Riseborough and Michael Sheen), colleagues (Jena Malone) and even husband (Armie Hammer) read like arch caricatures of a certain type of American intellectual – self-involved, oblivious, adulterous. That’s perhaps a failing of Ford’s writing – his chief departure from Wright’s novel is to shift Susan from middle-class comfort to upper-class luxury – but his directorial choices suggest that this is all quite deliberate. There are regular homages to the work of David Lynch – particularly Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, two films that explore the contrast between pulp and opulence, reality and fantasia.
Susan’s life feels immaculately constructed. Constructed, perhaps, in her own attempt to wall herself away from the fragility of the world outside. A world divorced from creature comforts, the kind her mother (Laura Linney) warned her she’d be unable to live without. The kind of world she lived in with a harried yet kind author, for a time. Or constructed by Edward himself, as though we’re watching the version of Susan he imagined when writing his novel, when sending her the manuscript. A version of Susan trapped by her perfect possessions, her handsome husband, her fawning inferiors. A version of Susan wrecked, weakened by the seismic strength of Edward’s writing, left ragged and ripped open.
Fictional creations are, after all, at the whims of their creators. The models who lie prostrate, nude, still on the floors of Susan’s art gallery as her perfectly-dressed patrons walk by with their glasses of champagne. Tony Hastings, who suffers at the hands of his creator, who undergoes the kind of destructive loss that leaves you broken, not stronger; perhaps a purging of old hurt, perhaps something more primal. Susan, whose image of herself begins to crumble as she reads page after page of Nocturnal Animals; Susan, the creation of her own ambition, the creation of her ex-husband, the creation of a fashion-designer-turned-film-director. Susan, the image and the identity, real and imagined.
These idle reveries might be my own invention. The cabin in the desert, the shadows on the wall might be merely that, not allusions to a Lynchian exploration of identity. But this is a film that invests its audience in a story that’s explicitly a fiction within a fiction, confronting us with a suffering that’s moving even as we are reminded of its unreality. Nocturnal Animals’ chief achievement is to emphasise that the inherent strength of a story is what we can find in it – and if you’re anything like me, there’s a lot to find in this story.