It is rare to be wildly successful in one hyper-competitive creative field. To do it in two, all before cracking the age of 60 while remaining an impeccably dressed, ravishingly handsome gay icon? Practically unheard of. But at least one man has done it.
Tom Ford, named after the essence of all things American, is perhaps this country's most talented living creative genius. When Ford joined Gucci in 1990 the company was floundering. By 2004, when he left, it was valued at $10 billion and synonymous with over-priced high-end fashion for wealthy assholes. Tom Ford, like Don Draper, was a true American success story, using the alchemy of creative genius to conjure avalanches of money out of ambitious, daring advertising campaigns.
Ford has a preternatural gift for designing and marketing absurdly expensive clothing. But he wasn't content to stop there. He founded a film company and in 2009 directed A Single Man, a deeply sad film about a gay college professor in the 1960s, starring Colin Firth and based on a Christopher Isherwood novel. The film was nominated for a gaggle of awards, mostly for Firth's performance. For a directorial debut, it is shockingly good.
But it was really just a prelude. Ford's second film, Nocturnal Animals, was released last year and I think it was easily the best film of 2016. It is a spectacular piece of filmmaking, and given last year's fairly lackluster lineup, it stands out for the following reasons:
1. It's Visually Stunning. It should come as no surprise that Tom Ford, as a wildly successful fashion designer, has an impeccable eye for aesthetics. Much of the film takes place in Texas, and he shoots big sky and open plains with the fluency of Roger Deakins. But he's not just an aesthete, framing up beautiful but meaningless compositions. He films with purpose and a wide range of skill. There is a prolonged, white-knuckle sequence where two cars try to muscle each other off a highway at night, and the way the camera uses simple visual cues like headlights to ratchet up the tension is the mark of an artist in full command of the canvas. That Ford can stage both a beautiful portmanteau and shoot action with equal skill should tell us that he is the real deal.
But the moment I knew this film was special was the opening credits. The very first image in the movie is a montage of obscenely obese naked women jumping up and down in slow motion while little sparklers shower their flamboyant joy in a hail of sparks. The imagery is weird, arresting, puzzling and utterly mesmerizing. You have to be completely confident in your ability as a filmmaker to go for something like that. Ford goes for it. And it works.
2. The Film's Structure Is Complex Beyond Belief - Yet Still Totally Coherent. The narrative involves three separate timelines - one of which is an epistolary framing device using a fictional novel - unreliable perspectives, it jumps around in time, and clues about plot and character history are revealed slowly making the viewer have to work to fill in the blanks. If this sounds complicated, that's because it is.
But when you watch it, the movie unfolds in such a way that the narrative flows smoothly and you will never really be confused if you are paying attention. It is dense, self-reflexive and loops back on itself in many parts - yet, it makes total sense. Again, this tells me we are watching the work of a master filmmaker, confidently assembling the pieces of a complex narrative web into a coherent whole. It is no easy feat to shift between time, place, setting and even genres - all within the same film.
3. Thematically Dense and Thought-Provoking. This is a film about revenge, loss, the act of creating, unhappiness, relationships, guilt, careers, dreams and all the other things that make up the human condition. This thematic mixture is framed through the complex narrative structure mentioned above, and I think that gives it some extra weight. Because we see these themes reflected in flashbacks, through the epistolary story-telling device, and in the film's present, we see how the themes change over time and in different contexts, how they impact one another and how they connect through the tissue of the narrative. It's quite complex but ultimately I think it makes the ideas that the movie plays around with pop more fully.
The acting is uniformly great, but Michael Shannon as a Texas lawman is especially outstanding. I can't think of another movie that was released in 2016 that had such a rich mixture of gorgeous visual imagery, narrative complexity, thematic depth and top-notch acting. This is a great film, from an exceptionally talented filmmaker. Also, the ending is probably as close to perfect as one can get in cinema. You should see it, if you have not already.