“Are you willing to go outside of strict procedure on this?” barks Michael Shannon’s Texas lawman in one strand of Tom Ford’s noir-tinted melodrama.
Fashion designer Ford certainly exceeds set procedure in his sumptuous, suspenseful second film, lifted from Austin Wright’s meta-novel Tony and Susan. Juggling surface and subtext, high style and raw feeling, Ford pulls off a visceral brain-teaser with genre-mangling ambition and confidence: even when he leaves you unmoored, his hold is sure.
Proving that Colin Firth’s lead in Ford’s debut, A Single Man (2009), was no fluke, that assurance shows emphatically in the performances. On peak form, Amy Adams taps deeply into the aching neurosis behind the poise of married, moneyed and melancholy LA gallery manager Susan Morrow.
When her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her his novel, Nocturnal Animals, she starts reading. Swiftly, we’re guided between memories of love soured and the novel’s Texas noir nightmare, where a double-duty Gyllenhaal’s city wimp turns vengeful after his wife and daughter are abducted during a late-night road altercation.
Smartly, Ford makes these triple-stacked plots magnify, not muffle each other. Adams imbues the act of reading with magnetism; as for Edward’s novel, the electric highway confrontation sizzles with tight-wound tension. Themes of guilt, revenge and wounded manhood course through its fraught aftermath, intensified as they bleed into Susan’s story via the history of her bust-up with Edward.
With near-Hitchcockian levels of suspense and suggestion, Ford charges every scene, setting and segue with implication. DOP Seamus McGarvey’s lustrous images stress the contrasts between Susan’s mansion and wide-open Texas, from first-world torpor to existential drift. Later, a punch thrown in the novel cuts aggressively to Susan dropping the book, her control rocked by loaded prose in editor Joan Sobel’s whip-sharp work.
Swooning to Abel Korzeniowski’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score, what emerges is a tale of repressed romance, stifling conformity and literary revenge, all embedded in style. Rhyming images accrued across story strands invite us to look closer. As they mount, so our emotional investment deepens. (Remember the startling opening-titles sequence – suggestive callbacks occur.)
Fantastic ensemble casting fleshes out Ford’s pull. Isla Fisher’s Adams-like wife, Shannon’s beady detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s lank-haired varmint all enthral in Texas. In posh-world, Laura Linney assumes attack mode as Susan’s toxic mother and Michael Sheen delivers an art-clique cameo with waspish style. “Our world is a lot less painful than the real world,” he tells Susan.
But as Adams takes centre-stage for an ambiguously agonised finale, the strictly policed boundary between worlds crumbles. Same goes for Ford’s multiple layers: his sense of studied design is scrupulous, but it comes etched in emotional intensity.