Tom Ford, designer turned film director, will never be forgiven by some for not being John Ford — a numinous natural rather than a Tommy-come-lately with talent. But Nocturnal Animals, his second feature after the modest but accomplished A Single Man, invokes a whole other John Ford anyway. It’s a revenge drama (scripted from a novel by Austin Wright). It’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore translated to a present-day world of trash wealth, fickle love and Damien Hirst terror mortis. And it’s pretty damn good.
Gallery owner Amy Adams is a lonely-hearted profligate stuck in a cold second marriage to philanderer Armie Hammer after an abortive (count the meanings) first union with aspiring writer Jake Gyllenhaal. She’s on her own one night in her all-mod-cons fortress, reading the new novel her ex has sent her. The film, telling its story, opens up like a nightmare, bleeding the allegorical traces of their life together.
How much should I tell you? As little as I can. The nightmare’s first chapter is as scary as Hell. A midnight fender bender incident goes feral on a highway. Gyllenhaal doubles on screen — that is, in Adams’ imagination — as the novel’s hero, a family-weekending husband and dad reduced to naked ape status by three abducting goons, led by a never-better Aaron Taylor-Johnson. (Forget John Lennon. Think Ted Bundy.)
No more spoiler reveals. Let’s only ink in Michael Shannon’s bleakly seriocomical sheriff with health issues — bringing the dry, dark humour a Jacobean drama needs — and the wow of an ending in which time stops along with our heartbeats. Ford doubters may still loudhail their doubts. The visuals are sometimes designer sleek; the music “retro” (Herrmann/Hitchcock). Some close-ups have a megawatt gleam redolent of Douglas Sirk circa Magnificent Obsession (1954). But at its best and most visceral, Nocturnal Animals is more than the work of an apprentice or homage payer. It’s that of an organ grinder not a monkey — and the organ being ground is the viewer’s heart.