It’s common to see people who work in creative industries shift roles frequently, mostly due to the collaborative process of those industries. Musicians often pursue acting roles, actors experiment with filmmaking and filmmakers author books. While contemporary cultures have blurred the division between high and low art, there’s still a stigma against those who transition into new mediums. Designer Tom Ford, who is known for revitalizing the Italian high-end fashion brand Gucci in the 1990s, proved critics wrong with his directorial debut, “A Single Man” (2009). Starring Academy Award winners Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, “A Single Man” was a visual masterpiece; Ford’s eye for fashion lent the movie sophisticated mise-en-scene. With expert cinematography, costume, set design and musical score, the movie felt more like an established director’s magnum opus than a fashion designer’s debut.
Seven years later, Ford returns to the silver screen with “Nocturnal Animals” (2016), an adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan” (1993). “Nocturnal Animals” is an arguably more ambitious project than “A Single Man;” the narrative features a story within a story, exploring multiple sceneries as well as genres. Furthermore, the cast and budget are both significantly larger. Despite all the possible shortcomings that could have made the movie a messy experience, Ford avoids a sophomore slump with artful direction.
The movie’s opening scene might be one of the most spectacular introductions in recent memory. The scene is over-the-top but elegant, grotesque but beautiful in a unique way. It’s clear that Ford wants to demonstrate his strengths as a fashion designer within the first minutes, and it works. The scene is stylistically groundbreaking. It’s also a nod to the story-within-a-story narrative that will occur later in the movie.
“Nocturnal Animals” follows the affluent gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). Susan is a textbook anti-hero, as she is portrayed as cold and distant. Very much fitting the wealthy Hollywood stereotype, she has marital problems and seems to dislike her work even though she is very good at it. Susan receives a manuscript of a novel penned by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), titled “Nocturnal Animals”. The movie then dissolves into three different narratives; the plot of the book melds with Susan’s current life as well as her past relationship with Edward.
Edward’s novel is extremely violent, and it’s meant to parallel the brutal way Susan has broken up with Edward. In fact, the title “Nocturnal Animals” comes from a nickname Edward uses for Susan, and the book is dedicated to her. Reading the book, Susan is able to reflect on her current life and soften her cut-throat attitude.
Every frame of the movie is a work of art. Ford is able to deliver visually both in the flashy, glamorous Los Angeles and damp, deserted Texas settings. Ford mirrors images of Susan and Tony Hastings, the protagonist of Edward’s book also played by Gyllenhaal, to create a connection between the two contrasting settings.
The movie features a star-studded cast. In addition to the impressive performances by Adams and Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Karl Glusman shine in their roles as murderers Ray and Lou. While his role in the movie is rather small and his breakthrough performance is yet to come, Glusman finally secures his spot as one of the biggest emerging actors in Hollywood after delivering solid performances in mediocre films such as “Love” (2015) and “The Neon Demon” (2016). Established actors such as Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen and Jena Malone also feature in the cast, while “True Blood” (2008-2014) alumnus Kristen Bauer van Straten has the funniest cameo of the year.
The movie’s ending is rather disappointing, as it is unable to bring closure to Susan’s story. While Ford does an impressive job with the movie, it’s also safe to say that his strengths lie in simpler narratives. Compared to “A Single Man,” the movie, particularly its second act, may seem unfocused. Overall, “Nocturnal Animals” is a solid effort by a fashion designer proving once again that he is an expert in multiple creative fields.