Writer and Director: Tom Ford
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, and Laura Linney
If you ever wondered what a Nicholas Winding-Refn movie might look like with a little more dialogue, this might be it. Kidding aside, Tom Ford’s long awaited follow-up to the stellar A Single Man fails to impress with its significant issues of ‘style over substance’.
The style that is present is actually incredible, between the stark genre images of the in-novel world, and the shadowy impressionist images of the diegetic world of the film, there is a lot of glamour and beauty to behold. Sadly, much like the main character, this is little of interest beyond the glorious looks.
The film follows Amy Adams’s Susan Morrow, an artist whose estranged ex-husband sends a manuscript for his soon to be published novel as his first form of contact in 19 years. Within the pages is a story of violence and torture towards characters that are frighteningly familiar to Susan. She appears to take this as a threat, and the fear disrupts her life in a very very mild way. This is one of the major failings of the film, it completely fails to justify spending time in Amy Adams’s diegetic world, the effects of the book on her life are fairly minor. There is some anxiety, she calls her husband (Hammer) and possible daughter after reading the opening chapters of the book, and later there is an effective jump scare, but that is about it.
The book itself is not that much better, being a largely uncomfortable and fairly putrid genre piece of revenge porn. The only thing making it the least bit worthwhile is Michael Shannon being the only one skilled enough to recognize the campiness of the film, and to play right into it (Johnson appears to try with his wild-eyed overplayed criminal, but as usual with Johnson, he is ineffective). Shannon’s comically Texan detective is a breath of fresh air in a pretty dour and pretentious ride. The film appears to try to say things about the fakeness of life in LA or the art-scene, but feels deeply uncommitted to those ideas as they are mentioned (literally mentioned in dialogue by the increasingly underused Michael Sheen) and then never brought up again. The film boasts a great cast but then fails to really utilize them, Gyllenhaal gets a couple of showcase shouting scenes, but both of his characters are underwritten and underexamined. The overall conceit of their intertwining plots is a bit touching and could be more meaningful, but the vague ending fails to really put the finish on the setup. Adams is great as the film begins, it is difficult to make the reading of a book an interesting screen activity but her eyes and face make it so with subtle reactions. The exploration of her character is, however, not nearly as gripping as could be. There are major ellipses which take some of the luster off her transition from dreaming artist to someone much closer to her dreaded materialistic mother.
Adams struggles to keep her side of the story engaged as there is precious little to work with and it is almost all on her shoulders. The two sides of the film are supposed to work in concert, but the tones are so drastically different that they never really gel. One is a clear genre piece, and the other is an attempted low-key character drama. The campiness of the genre portion poisons the low-key character drama and the low-key character drama prevents dramatic tension from accumulating in the very slight genre piece.
Overall the film is a great disappointment. The imagery remains beautiful as Ford maintains his eye for dramatic colours and imagery, however you can get from the very opening credits that this film will have much more in common with John Waters than Alfred Hitchcock, and sadly I cannot say that, beyond Michael Shannon’s delectable performance, that is a good thing.