Tom Ford has been doing interviews recently decrying materialism, which is a bit like Michael Fish admitting that the weather is a lie. Ford’s second film – after the heartbreaking A Single Man – continues the theme: possessions won’t make you happy, life is short, don’t waste it chasing the consumerist dragon.
Where A Single Man dealt with the traumatic loss of a loved one, Nocturnal Animals concerns itself with the loss of love itself.
It begins with a credits sequence that’s so much the antithesis of Ford’s work as a fashion designer that in lesser hands it would elicit a groan. In it obese women in drum majorette costumes jump up and down, dimpled bellies and sagging breasts sloshing around in slow motion. It’s revealed to be an exhibit at the gallery of protagonist Susan (Amy Adams), who is deeply unfulfilled by the trappings of wealth.
Despite superficial financial difficulties – manifest in the outstandingly catty image of a giant Jeff Koons balloon dog being winched from her garden – Susan appears to have the perfect life; modernist house, great job, beautiful husband. But the arrival of a manuscript from a long-lost lover – the bookish, romantic Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) – reminds Susan of the sacrifices she made for material success.
The novel, brought to life in Susan’s imagination, is a horrific tale of a man – a clear analogue for Edward, also played by Gyllenhaal – losing his loved ones in the most brutal of ways, writhing in mental agony as his masculinity and humanity are stripped away.
In a notable departure from the aesthetic of A Single Man, much of the action takes place in a neglected, peeling America filled with trailers and motels and wide-open spaces. It’s dusty and unloved and unromanticised, though Ford’s eye for a beautiful shot is as sharp as ever.
The dual strands of the film are interspersed with flashbacks to key moments in Susan’s life as she relives the decisions that brought her to the present day, wondering if there is still time to right the wrongs of the past. It’s a complex and ambitious structure, pulled off with the assurance of a veteran filmmaker, rather than a sophomore director feeling his way in a second career. Just as impressive are the performances he coaxes out of the brilliant Adams and Gyllenhaal who expertly convey the deep, visceral pain of losing someone you love.
The two narratives become ever more entwined, both hurtling towards inevitably vengeful conclusions; one bloody, the other bloodless, both equally devastating.