Hollywood tops in the art of storytelling, and what is cinema without this. Long years ago, Ismail Merchant, whose partnership with the artistic James Ivory lead to so many lovely films, had said that a movie must, above all, be able to present a good yarn. Which much of Indian cinema has not been able to, and often it jars in contrast to what American dream merchants dish out.
At the ongoing Venice Film Festival, designer Tom Ford’s -- who vowed the fashion world as the creative director of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent -- Nocturnal Animals (his second movie after A Single Man) also vowed the press on Friday.
A gripping tale of love and revenge and redemption, Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s Tony and Susan. The book is set in 1993, and the movie as well, in times when mobile phones were not all that widely used. Ford chooses Texas -- “A place I am familiar with” -- to unfold his thrilling piece of drama that certainly had this writer hooked. With the lead parts played by Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal, Nocturnal Animals reveals the mastery that Ford has over the medium. As he transports his story from the present to the past and back to the present, one had no confusion about the narrative. Such was the auteur’s control and command over his work that the frames slipped from one point in time to another with flawless finesse and extraordinary ease.
Adam’s Susan Morrow runs an art gallery in Los Angeles (and not the bored wife and mother as in the original, the book) and is married to a Wall Street millionaire (not a doctor). Some 19 years ago, she had been in love with a romantic writer, Edward (Gyllenhaal). The relationship could not work, largely because Susan and her mother (a rich aristocrat, who sneered at working class men like Edward) found the man lacking in motivation and drive. “You have no ambition, you are not driven”, Susan tells Edward before calling their affair quits.
But after all these years of zero contact with Edward, Susan is surprised to find a book, a novel, in her mail written by him. Titled Nocturnal Animals, it is about a man, his wife and daughter who on highway one night are waylaid by a group of ruffians.
As Susan reads Nocturnal Animals over several nights (an insomniac that she is), she begins to reflect on her own past and her life with Edward. Ford cleverly pushes the plot from Susan’s own eventful relationship with Edward to the terrifying sequence on the motorway -- where Tony (also Gyllenhaal) takes his wife (Isla Fisher) and young daughter (Ellie Bamber) on a drive towards a family vacation. The car is run off the road by a bunch of goons, and the father’s worst nightmare begins.
Susan is moved by Edward’s book --- which is dedicated to her -- and cannot help but reminisce over the most private moments from her own love story with the author. Trying to look within herself and beyond the glossy surface of the life and career she has made, Susan interprets the book as a tale of revenge, a tale that forces her to re-evaluate the choices she has made, and re-awakens a love that she feared was lost - as the story builds to a reckoning that will define both the novel’s hero and her own.
Nocturnal Animals swings back and forth to Susan now and Susan then, the scenes interspersed with Tony’s troubles and tragedy. Ford appears quite adept at handling such multiple narratives without causing the least of unease in a viewer. And some of the choices he makes are not just challenging but also prove what a great designer he has been. The sequence of placing two flame-haired dead women naked on a bright, red sofa is startling, but produces a great visual affect.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Venice Film Festival.)