Putting the crisis into mid-life crisis.
“Do you think your life has turned into something you never intended?” So asks Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) to her young assistant, who obviously looks baffled. “Of course, not – you’re still young”. Susan is in a mid-life crisis. While successful within the opulent Los Angeles art scene her personal life is crashing to the ground around her: her marriage (to Hutton (Armie Hammer, “The Man From Uncle”) ) appears to be cooling fast amid financial worries.
In the midst of this rudderless time a manuscript from her ex-husband, struggling writer Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), turns up out of the blue. As we see in flashback, Edward is a man let down on multiple levels by Susan in the past. His novel – “Nocturnal Animals”, dedicated to Susan – is a primal scream of twenty years worth of hurt, pain, regret and vengeance; a railing against a loss of love; a railing against a loss of life.
As Susan painfully turns the pages we live the book as a ‘film within a film’ – with characters casually modelled on Edward, Susan and Susan’s daughter, actually played by Gyllenhaal, Amy-Adams-lookalike Isla Fisher (“Grimsby”) and Ellie Bamber (“Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) respectively. The insomniac Susan is seriously moved. She feels likes someone who’s fallen asleep on the train of life and doesn’t recognise any of the stations when she wakes up. How will Susan’s regrets translate into action? Should she take up Edwards offer to meet up for dinner?
This Tom Ford film – only his second after the wildly successful “A Single Man” in 2009 – is a challenging film to watch. The opening titles of naked overweight woman ‘twerkers’ is challenging enough (#wobble). After this shocking opening (that morphs into an art gallery installation) the LA scenes have a gloriously Hitchcockian/noir feel to them, being gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“The Accountant”, “The Avengers”) – an Oscar nomination I would suggest should be in the offing.
And then comes the start of the “book” segment: one of the most uncomfortably tense scenes I’ve seen this year. A Texan family horror film featuring a lonely highway and a trio of “deplorables” (to quote an unfortunate put-down by Hilary Clinton). As stark contrast to the sharp lines and glamour of LA, these scenes are reminiscent of “No Country for Old Men” with a searingly unpleasant performance from Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) and an equally queasy turn by local law enforcer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, Zod in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”). Either or both of these gentlemen could be contenders for a Supporting Actor nomination. The tension is superbly notched up by a mesmerising cello/violin score by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski.
Amy Adams is fantastic in the leading role (what with “Arrival” this month, this is quite a month for the actress) as is Jake Gyllenhaal, channelling so much emotion, angst and guilt at his own impotence. After “Nightcrawler” Gyllenhaal is building up a formidable reputation that must translate into an Oscar some time soon: possibly this is it. Some excellent cameos from Laura Linney (as Susan’s sad-eyed mother) and Michael Sheen (in a superb purple jacket) rounds off an excellent ensemble cast.
The concept of a “film within a film” is not new. The most memorable example (I realise with a shock – #midlifecrisis) was “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” with a young but striking Meryl Streep 35 years ago. Here the LA sequence, the book and the flashback scenes are beautifully merged into a seamless whole where you never seem to get lost or disorientated.
If there is a criticism to be made, the second half of the ‘book’ is not as satisfying as the first with some rather clunky plot points that fall a little too easily.
However, this is a nuanced film where every step and every scene feels sculpted and filled with meaning. It is a film that deserves repeat viewings, since it raises questions and thoughts that survive long after the lights have come up. Tom Ford’s output may be of a sparsity of Kubrick proportions, but like Kubrick his output is certainly worth waiting for.
Recommended, but go mentally prepared: this was a UK 15 certificate, but it felt like it should be more of a UK 18.
Fad Rating: FFFF.