Nocturnal Animals (2016)
W/D: Tom Ford. DP: Seamus McGarvey. Starring: Amy Adams/Jake Gyllenhaal/Michael Shannon/Aaron Taylor-Johnson/Isla Fisher/Armie Hammer/Ellie Bamber/Karl Glusman/Laura Linney/Michael Shannon/Andrea Riseborough/Robert Aramayo. (Based on the novel Tony & Susan by Austin Wright)
It is rarity in the world of film adaptions to find a film that manages to improve upon a novel with such style as Nocturnal Animals. However to be fair, Austin Wright’s 1993 book, Tony & Susan, is not a fiction masterpiece. Making the festival rounds this year, the film has gathered momentum leading into this Oscar season and is one of two films (the other being Arrival) that showcases actress Amy Adams.
Nocturnal Animals is the sophomore effort from fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford, who adapted Wright’s novel as well as directing. His opening is vivid, strong, and sets the tone of a film seeped in jewel tones. Movie Susan (Adams) is a gallery owner living a high-end life with husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) whose stressful job is nebulous at best. The couple live in a house built for art not family amidst the hills of Los Angeles. In the post one day arrives a manuscript of a novel written by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal, asking for her thoughts. Thus begins a film about someone reading a book.
In basic character traits the film and novel vastly differ. Book Susan is in her fifties, a stay at home mother of three, who grapples with the settling of her life and her doctor husband’s routine infidelity. Movie Susan is glamorously dripped in designer clothes and reads alone in a cold home as the bank accounts run dry. A fine change, but one that completely alters the mood and as well as Susan’s characterization. As one of the main themes of Nocturnal Animals is choice, her circumstances are quite significant. Ford’s script supports these alternations, but its message is therefore quite different. My only gripe with this change is down to her stock adulterer husband Hammer who does not match age wise with the daughter Adams calls late in the film.
Other than the characterization of Susan there are minor nips and cuts Ford takes that are necessary parts of adaption. His greater creativity lies in his ability to establish a mood that encourages your interest in Adams’ reactions as she reads and the novel plays out onscreen. She imagines her ex-husband (Gyllenhaal) as the main character Tony who is driving across Texas with his wife and daughter. This is a geographical shift as well, giving Tony (as well as Edward) and Susan Southern pasts whereas in the book they come from moneyed New Englanders and Tony is driving to the cape. In the book drama onscreen en route to their summer home the family is driven off the road by three men. The thrill of the therefore mostly lives in this narrative.
Having read Tony & Susan, and thus aware of the twists and manipulation, Nocturnal Animals is still able to entrance in a way that implores the power of the adult imagination. We see ourselves and our experiences in art, contextualizing them in our life rather than using them as projections outside of us like children. Adams grounds the film with her acting, mostly done in extreme close up. Yet Gyllenhaal, as the meek and traumatized Tony, guides the book narrative well. His inherent big-eyed wonder quality brings a softness that distracts and balances the extreme characterizations in his world.
Ultimately, Nocturnal Animals is a memorable follow up to 2009’s A Single Man, with Ford stealing generously from himself. The final reveal is not in the novel and changes the metaphor of the book. A fascinating interpretation of a hanging ending that probably needed greater power in the cinema-sphere. The longer I think about the film the more it grows on me. Maybe that was Ford’s attempt, to hit with so much visual perfume that the lingering memory makes a second viewing that much more desirable.