Fade to Black, 2016
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
The model of modern work is said to prefer in its human resources flexibility above all other traits. The future of jobs, neoliberal prophets declare, will see individuals traverse easily and nimbly across diverse working environments, acquiring new skills to adapt to and meet rapidly-evolving needs. Like a software package capable of updating itself and adding an unlimited amount of code, the ideal labourer would be suited to a vast range of roles; even (especially) those not yet known.
Yet when Tom Ford – former head and messiah of a once-struggling Gucci, and current head of his own eponymous fashion empire which turns over 1 billion a year – decided to strike out into film 10 years ago, everyone (including his friends) thought it ludicrous. Mobility should be championed, sure – but only for the emergent classes, for the middle tiered gopher lot. It is hardly recommended for those already embedded in positions of visible power; for those so supremely entrenched within their own industries; for the elite already enshrined in their own personal brand. Some law of physics seemed to risk transgression; some unusual rift between worlds created with Ford’s audacious crossover.
A Single Man shut everyone up there. A beautiful, personal film, Ford’s debut was almost universally lauded – for its exquisite aesthetic as much as its heart. It didn’t hurt having Colin Firth in the lead role either, who would earn a BAFTA for his performance of a gay British professor, struggling with loss in ’60s L.A.
Though some critics have knocked it as ‘vacuous’, this year’s Nocturnal Animals confirms Ford’s seriousness and sincerity as one of the decade’s top ‘must-keep-tabs-on’ filmmakers. A riveting neo-noir thriller (that would’ve had Clooney as producer had he not later thrown up his hands and said: “Tom’s got this”), it shoulders and then enfolds three separate stories, building to make a gorgeous and psychologically violent compound of correspondences between the past, present and imagined worlds of rich, deeply unhappy gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams – also appearing on Australian screens with Arrival) and Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband of almost-twenty years. It is Tony’s new book Nocturnal Animals – dedicated to Susan, who finds the proof in the mail enclosed with a handwritten note – that makes for the active ingredient triggering the shuddering upheaval of Susan’s lavish, disingenuous, unsteady world.
Like A Single Man, the film is based on a book – this time a 1993 novel called Tony and Susan, by Austin Wright. Along with directing the film, Ford also occupied the role of producer (well sure) and screenwriter (he eschewed art director and costume designer). According to an interview with Hollywood Insider, “writing the script became a compulsion, then an obsession, with Ford locking himself in his bedroom and burying himself under the covers, fully clothed, as he typed away on the Final Draft program on his laptop.”
For his neurosis, a pretty great return. The seams between the three different plotlines meld into each other with great craftmanship, such that while some transitions are unusual, suspense is never left slack. Alone (as her bland, blue-eyed cut-out of a husband makes high time in corporate trip hotel suites, treating their marriage like the superficial sham it always was) and seemingly paying the price for her creative cowardice, Susan loses herself in the novel, and the romanticism of regret. As if any artificial light would be crass in its accompaniment, she reads with only the wash of moonlight on the pages.
We find the book is not only dedicated to her, nor its title a reference to an old pet name, but contains a version of her – hers, her ex-husband’s, and their would-be daughter’s. Driving along a Texan country road at night, the parallel family find horror in the car beside them in the form of three men. Shoved off the road, their tires slashed, they are subject to harassment of the most sickening, brutish kind.
Whether or not Susan realises this (though the final scene suggests she must), the book is not an offer of peace. It is a carrier of vengeance. It is a form of contained violence, sad and sardonic. In writing his fictional self, Tony embodies a limp, insipid, self-preserving sensitivity – precisely the projected ‘weakness’ that was Susan’s reason for leaving him. When his wife and daughter are assaulted, molested, dragged into the thug’s car and pulled away from him screaming, Tony can only stand there in dumb shock, shaking from his hands the blood from a semi-broken nose. After chance has him escape from the gang, he makes no efforts to find them. Instead, after spending the night hiding in the hillocked plains, he limps to the police station. When he and Detective Bobby Andes (played with fascinating inscrutability by Michael Shannon) come across the bodies, Tony whimpers “she okay?”
In this brutal, inverse world of blood, dust and guilt, it is Tony who abandons his loved ones. In their own personal history, it was Susan.
Abandonment, detachment, warped priority through insecurity: these make the foul underflow of the film, churning beneath its elegant surface. Whether audiences will find Nocturnal Animals to have any substantive merit outside of its elan, however, may depend upon whether they accept the ways in which these themes are incorporated not only in the plot, but in the structure of the film itself. Portraits are built up in fragments; there is a certain carelessness by which some scenes are incorporated into the whole. Grotesque denizens of the fashion world erupt briefly and coarsely. Not all the parts ‘fit’. One is left wondering. Are the indulgences worthwhile? Is the sense of something ‘wanting’ a worthy kind of provocation – operating on a kind of ‘satisfaction denied, desire sustained’ idea? Are the distasteful elements ‘meta’ enough to warrant themselves? Or does Nocturnal Animals end up being cannibalised by the very superficiality it makes comment on?
In my own mind, the answer is still moot.