There’s a hairdo I can’t stop thinking about: a bumper-car bumper’s worth of buoyant yellow strands, blown out with all the curvy self-assurance of the early coliseums. It’s hair that screams: oil money. And it’s atop the diamond-and-pearled head of Laura Linney, who has only one scene in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals but, in mere minutes, walks away with the entire movie. It isn’t so much anything she says (though “We all eventually turn into our mothers” does have some bite), but what she represents. Linney plays Anne Sutton, mother of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the movie’s heroine. Anne is as bright and Baroque era as she looks. She doesn’t want her daughter to marry her novelist boyfriend, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), because, well, he’s poor, and they’re not. Susan marries him anyway.
Susan, who eventually becomes a posh gallery owner in L.A., is an artist at heart, like her soon-to-be ex-husband, but she says she’s too cynical to be one. Her own haircut speaks volumes, like her mother’s: a steel-smooth curtain of red that suggests the hand of an ironsmith. She’s every bit the commercialist her mother is, and will eventually leave Edward for that reason. The dialogue between the two women spells this out in clear terms, and Linney, stylized to the point of bad taste, is particularly delightful. But the hair alone — the staid swoops of the mother and the icy defiance of the daughter — could sum up the film’s central conflicts between family and profession, art and money.
Details like this, overdone and sometimes even ugly, play like paeans to the significance of style. As both a director and fashion maverick, Ford has long dealt with character and inner life as matters of design. Nocturnal Animals is his second movie, after 2009’s A Single Man, a film in which you’re just as aware of what Colin Firth’s weepy gay bachelor is feeling as you are of what he’s wearing and drinking, and even of the expensive gleam of his favorite variety of men. Maybe that’s crass, on Ford’s part. But there’s something a little too — straight? — about our usual movie vulgarians, the Michael Bay, Nicolas Winding Refn, and Zack Snyder types. Like them, Ford has made a career of stretching the polite demands of genre and taste to their limits. But in Ford’s movies, the only thing getting blown up or out is hair.
We are in a moment for men directing movies about fashion, with Refn’s The Neon Demon hitting theaters earlier this year, on the heels of two films about Yves Saint Laurent in 2014. There are new fashion-centric films en route from Paul Thomas Anderson, who’s teaming up with Daniel Day-Lewis on a project set in 1950s London, and Wong Kar-Wai, who’s directing a biopic about Gucci.
Ford, on the other hand, is an actual designer. Yet neither of his films seems like it’d be a candidate for this trend. A Single Man adapts Christopher Isherwood’s classic, mournful novel about a gay professor whose lover dies, whereas Nocturnal Animals practically plays like a psychosexual noirist’s take on The NeverEnding Story.
But fashion is of course their ultimate subject. Ford can’t help himself: He doesn’t direct films so much as style them half to death. Both of his films are tributes to style’s practically sociological insight into who people are. And because they are films, not runway parades, they’re also Ford’s own way of hashing out his feelings about fashion itself.
Tom Ford sells handbags that go for 10,300 pounds but says, in earnest: “If you buy this and do that and build this house, you’re not going to be happy.” In an oblique way, this is what his films have turned out to be about. As early as 2007, circa his comeback tour following very public breaks from Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, Ford has talked about wanting to be a filmmaker. He’s been hovering alongside the industry for awhile, providing a catalog’s worth of memorable red-carpet looks, styling Daniel Craig’s James Bond, and partying with Tom Hanks and Julianne Moore. Financing his first movie was his first actual step into the industry, but as he said recently: “In the fashion world, we pull images [from movies] like crazy.” As influences, he’s cited arthouse classics like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), divine for being modelesque and overtly postured.
That explains the ambition of Nocturnal Animals. What the film lacks in psychological insight, it tries to make up for with a complex concept. Adams’s Susan, who’s married to a rich and beautiful but bored Armie Hammer, receives a copy of her ex-husband Edward’s novel. It’s a fictional story about a man like Edward who has a wife like Susan and a red-haired daughter who, in reality, they never had. A traffic accident in the desert catapults the family into a crime thriller involving rape, murder, and Michael Shannon. It’s a page-turner for Susan, whose experience of reading the book basically constitutes the whole movie. Nocturnal Animals is in fact two films. One is the life of the professionally and romantically unsatisfied Susan. The other is Nocturnal Animals, Edward’s book about, among other things, the violent dissolution of their marriage and his apparent weakness as a man.
As premises go, it’s excitingly weird, a Western wrapped in a noir, with melodrama stringing both genres together like cooking twine. It isn’t particularly realistic, and that’s the point. “I want a movie to be a movie!” Ford says. “We have enough reality. I want the score to be big, I want the characters to be big, I want people to be more beautiful than they are in real life!” The best images in the movie are of Adams looking up startled from the book, dampened and spent in the bathroom or in bed like a 19th-century heroine reading her suitor’s letters. We leave every reenacted snippet of Edward’s novel with a shot of Adams looking a mess, and, in a way, this tells us everything about her character we need to know. We realize we aren’t experiencing the crime story as it happened, since it didn’t, or even as Edward wrote it, but rather as Susan reads it: It’s a movie within a movie, tailor-made to her perspective. The way things play out in the fiction seems, somehow, inflected by her.
It’s telling that the device is so simple. Maybe you wouldn’t expect it to be so, but a repeated shot of Adams looking up from a book, clearly overwhelmed by what she has read, has a lot more weight than all the clunky dialogue in the world. Too much of Adams’s overall contribution boils down to rote moments of inelegant gut-spilling, with entire new characters introduced just to listen as her unguarded soliloquies do the legwork of exposition.
It’s style, again, that provides the most insight. Susan, as imagined by Ford, surrounds herself with confrontational, evocative art. Maybe that’s a way of getting at who she is. An emboldened portrait of a woman’s oversized ass hangs above her desk at work. The movie itself opens with video portraits of plus-sized women in the buff, dancing in tiaras and pageant sashes as their breasts and thighs sway in slow motion. What does it mean? Ford is a master of dreaming up styles for his characters that seem to tell us everything we need to know about who they are: outsides that imply insides. He has yet to show that the characters in his movies have more going on than what their hair and wardrobe reveal — but at their best, his films teach us that what’s at the surface tells its own rich story.
You would think Ford would embrace that. But like A Single Man, Nocturnal Animals ultimately reaches for something that isn’t there, and falters. Ford is the consummate commercial artist, but he seems to hate it — while still, as an artist, trafficking in it. “Susan is quite literally me,” Ford said recently. “She is struggling with the world that I live in: the world of absurd rich [people], the hollowness and emptiness I perceive in our culture.” Nocturnal Animals owes much to that emptiness. Style is Ford’s subject, and it apparently isn’t enough.