Film, Reviews, Screen

Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford’s imperfect adaptation of Austin Wright’s perfect novel

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Tom Ford’s second feature film (after the accomplished A Single Man, 2009) is, as one might expect of a style guru, beautifully shot and mesmerisingly stylish. The surfaces glint and glimmer with elegance. Abel Korzeniowski’s Bernard Herrmann-like score is masterful and sumptuous. The clothes, the spectacles, the framing of the landscape, the poetic hovering of the camera over faces – this is a brutal crime thriller shoved into a great tuxedo.

Anyone who hasn’t read Tony and Susan, the 1993 Austin Wright novel on which this film is based, may be captivated by the originality of making the plot ingredients of rape, murder, infidelity, abortion and revenge look sartorial. But those who have read that stunningly masterful psychological thriller will most likely be disappointed.

Amy Adams plays Susan, an elegantly curated art-dealer, living in cool, modernist digs in LA with her creepily perfect metrosexual husband, Hutton. Susan is sent a manuscript written by her ex-husband, Edward. He has written a gruesome tale about Tony, a regular guy driving down an isolated Texan highway with his wife (Laura) and teenage daughter (India), when they are terrorised by a bunch of savage misfits.

Tom Ford is beautiful, charismatic and talented —but weird he is not, at least in his film-making.

The wife and daughter are kidnapped by the men while Tony survives by hiding. When dawn comes, Tony staggers to a house and calls the cops. Their search eventually reveals the bodies of the women and triggers a mission for justice, fuelled by the alienated dying policeman (Michael Shannon doing exactly what he always does) who wants to see Tony avenged.

Author and ex-husband Edward is play by Jake Gyllenhaal, who also plays Tony, the protagonist of his own novel. Laura, well played by Isla Fisher, is a dead-ringer for Susan leading us to wonder if Susan is insinuating herself in the story as she reads it, or whether it is Edward who has placed his ex-wife in his tale.

In both Wright’s book and Ford’s film (uniformly well acted as well as expertly shot by Seamus McGarvey) Susan becomes compelled by Edward’s story which becomes more real than real as it plays out in her mind’s eye. Seduced by Adam’s expressive horror, we become her companion audience, reading through the fiction to find distorted but intriguing parallels with life.

Wright’s split-story is faithfully replicated, but the confusion of past and present, real and fictional, does not have the same jagged, relentless and beguiling confusion as the book. The raw, almost psychotic, energy of Wright’s characters (both victims and perpetrators) has been smoothed over and the characters ultimately fall into a shallow cinematic grave.

Ford’s characters are reduced to archetypes: the lonely, faithful wife made more alone by her husband’s infidelity (in Susan’s reality), the good man undone by bad people and the avenging cop (in Edward’s fictional reality).

What is teasing, enigmatic and ultimately marvellous in Wright’s writing is his invisible manipulation of the reader to surrender to two sets of fiction: his overarching story and the story of his character-writer. We travel through a hall of mirrors in which every reflection comes at a different angle but feels equally realistic.

Nocturnal Animals borrows from some of the great, modern crime film-making of recent times.

In Nocturnal Animals, Ford has attempted to do the same, but the literalness of the camera (no matter how lovely) cannot blur the edges of reality the same way. Ford is not skilful enough as director to achieve – or possibly complex enough to want to achieve –the enigmatic layers of the book. His manipulation attempts the same end, but is not invisible. The self-consciousness of the medium means we never quite get as psychologically lost as we do in Austin’s extraordinarily unsettling book.

Has Edward fictionalised his history with Susan? Is the violent destruction of Laura really Edward’s fictional revenge on Susan for leaving him and not having faith in his creativity? Is the death of India in the book a stand-in for the abortion Susan had? Is his book a vengeful roman-a-clef?

While Tony and Susan is labelled crime-fiction, it is elevated well above the clichés of the genre through the power of the writing and the plain weirdness of Wright’s brain. Ford is beautiful, charismatic and talented —but weird he is not, at least in his film-making.

Nocturnal Animals borrows from some of the great, modern crime film-making of recent times, those which moodily blend brutality with passion – Blood Simple, Body Heat and the work of David Lynch – and is certainly entertaining. But despite the surface sheen, it lands surely in the genre, rather than provocatively overstepping its borders as Wright does in the original form.

Tony and Susan is possibly the strangest title for a book about murder ever. That it got past a publisher’s marketing department is probably due to a threat of violence or act of blackmail on the part of the writer. But once you start the book, it is perfect. Tony comes from fictional world of Edward’s story. Susan comes from the “real” world of Wright’s story. The confusion of fact and fiction, truth and irony is caught up in those three words.

Ford’s renaming of the film to the stylishly perfumed Nocturnal Animals (drawn from Edward’s nickname for Susan) tells you all you need to know. This is stylish and accomplished — but ultimately a conventional assembly of parts more interesting than the whole.

Nocturnal Animals is screening at Cinema Nova and selected cinemas around Australia.

Tony and Susan is published in Australia by Allen and Unwin. You can buy the book here.

2 responses to “Nocturnal Animals – Tom Ford’s imperfect adaptation of Austin Wright’s perfect novel

  1. haven’t read the book but will and so glad I didn’t because I thought the movie perfect and contrary to the comments above enough was left to the imagination. As for the opening scenes – they alone were enough to warrant rave reviews

  2. Nocturnal Animals is a thoroughly nasty film whose lead actress drags “wooden” and “two-dimensional” to new depths. Its key message: Be armed with a gun in the US at all times. You never know when you’re going to run into homicidal maniacs with foul toilet habits.

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