The quiet but powerful impact of fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford's first film "A Single Man" explodes in a rain of fascinating excess, emotional violence, and a feeling that sits somewhere between disturbing and unsettling in his second one, "Nocturnal Animals."
The opening scene, featuring some very overweight naked women dancing on a stage, letting it all hang loose, is both grotesque and mesmerizing. It's happening at a reception put on by art gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams), who's got it all: Handsome husband, gorgeous home, successful career, and an accompanying emptiness that just keeps gnawing at her.
So is everything as it seems, asks the script, which Ford adapted from the 1993 novel "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright. There's tension in Susan's marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer), who spends a lot of time away from home on business. She's is a failed artist, and her only relationship with creativity is in showing the works of others. And, hold on, is she really rich, or are they going broke because of her husband's bad business dealings?
But there's no time to think about any of that after a package arrives, with a manuscript inside. It's the first novel by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who always wanted to be a writer, and finally got around to it. The book is dedicated to Susan.
At home, alone, she turns to page one, and she and we immediately drop into the book's story, of a man, a woman, and their daughter driving along a lonely stretch of a West Texas road.
What goes on in the book, involving this family and their encounter with some locals in two other cars, is at first terrifying, and then the situation escalates.
Susan slams the book down, aghast at what happens in it, deeply frightened by the words and actions of Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the despicable loose cannon who leads what starts as a verbal assault on Tony and his family. Susan is so shaken, she seeks solace with a late-night phone call to Hutton, out on yet another business trip, but realizes that he's with another woman.
So it's back to the book for her and for us, and the film shifts into two tales that swirl together: It's a psychological horror story mixed in with a story about a husband and wife who are falling apart. Both of them feature tormented protagonists.
Things go very wrong in the book's story, and this leads to the introduction of Bobby (Michael Shannon), a Texas cop who enters the film with a memorable shot -- a pose that takes in him with a white cowboy hat, a long rifle, and a cigarette amidst a stark and beautiful Western environment -- who tells Tony (Gyllenhaal), "I look into things around here."
Although the film is really the stories of Susan in current time (Adams plays her sad and haunted), and of Tony, in the book (Gyllenhaal plays him tortured and filled with rage), much of it belongs to Shannon (whose character is only in the book segments). His Bobby seems annoyed by people, or perhaps by life. He's a broken man who shows no emotion even when he's delivering awful news to someone. He's also as laconic as he is scary, ever ready to threaten a criminal suspect by getting right up into his face. The crime that's committed in the book is horrific. Fortunately for viewers, it's never shown. We only see the results of it (Word of warning: Even that part is gruesome).
But Ford is more interested in making intriguing and inventive cinema than just shocking us. He and his editor Joan Sobel sometimes match visuals between scenes. One person in a shower cuts to another person in a shower. Two intertwined bodies cut to two other intertwined bodies. As he did in "A Single Man," Ford also freely jumps around in time, smoothly including flashbacks that either reveal something about a major character or about a previous relationship.
In the end, it's a story of revenge, but that aspect of it creeps into the film slowly and subtly. This is all-around superb filmmaking. It has a guaranteed spot on my Top 10 list.
-- Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Tom Ford
With Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson