It doesn’t pay to be a redhead in Tom Ford’s cinematic world. First, Julianne Moore cut a tragic figure in A Single Man, lusting after Colin Firth and wasting away in the process. Now, in his second film offering, a multitude of redheads face tragic fates of varying horrifying degrees.
Perhaps the hair colour demands drama. It holds connotations of screen heroines, doomed figures and simultaneously, an innately pure beauty in the alabaster skin. In its latest iteration, Amy Adams, Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber stun in their respective roles as the key redheads in this tragedy. Adams is a cold, composed incarnation of the passionate colour, whilst Fisher and Bamber portray southern innocence and Botticelli-esque beauty with their hip-length, wavy tresses.
Our main preoccupation for the film is Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, an art curator living in an imposing metal house surrounded by similarly metallic art (a Koons in the garden); a coldness that expands to her personal life in her fractured marriage to Armie Hammer as Walker Morrow. Their clearly fractured relationship appears rooted in financial concerns, and Walker’s apparent lack of interest in Susan’s career.
Susan is sent a manuscript by her first husband, aspiring writer Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The novel, Nocturnal Animals, harks back to a nickname Edwards had for Susan. He dedicates the novel simply “For Susan”, and opens with characters disturbingly similar to the two of them: a young, loving husband and a redheaded wife, both from Texas. The manuscript gives Susan a paper cut, and as she begins to read, it becomes apparent that the novel is in some way an incredibly violent incarnation of her relationship with Edward, warts and all.
Edward is weak. This is emphasised throughout via other characters, and we see little of Edward the writer himself in the present day. We see him as a young writer, and we hear of him through other characters. Susan’s mother, another tragic redhead perfectly played by Laura Linney via flashbacks, dismisses him as weak. When Susan leaves him for her second husband, she calls him weak when she says he is emotional and sensitive.
This weakness manifests itself in the horrifying scenes bringing his novel to life. Alongside Susan we see Edward’s harrowing novel, a tale of a father unable to defend his wife and daughter. Two more redheaded women who meet tragedy. His weakness is physicalised when faced with a roadside attack from a group of men, fronted by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who manages to be equal parts terrifying and pathetic. Their gang terrorise the family with horrendous results, as we see Edward’s fictional counterpart wandering brutal desert in search of his wife and daughter.
The ensuing horror of their interaction with the gang leads to an investigation, led by Michael Shannon’s superbly performed ailing detective. Shannon is frightening and commanding, but simultaneously brings light relief in moments of extreme darkness. Cast alongside Gyllenhaal’s apparently weak lead, he is a reassuring presence.
Despite conforming to a muted colour palette herself, Susan is perpetually surrounded by the colour red. In the first scene, her gallery opening, we are confronted by large women dancing naked on screens in front of a red backdrop. Later, in a flashback to her first marriage, she sits on a sofa whilst critiquing one of Edward’s earlier writing attempts. She calls her daughter who lies asleep on a bed with red sheets, disturbingly mirroring the pose of Fisher and Bamber in one of the more horrifying novel scenes. Outside of her home, Susan is haunted by the colour, and it manages to permeate her home life subtly in her burgundy lipstick and nail varnish.
Ford’s second cinematic offering is brutal. The slickness of his first film is evident in scenes with Adams in her L.A. life, but here there is a jarring rawness, provided by the novel’s horrorscape. Scenes in the dry, punishing desert conflict with Susan’s smooth L.A. life, and juxtaposing shots of Susan and Edward’s main character in water – either showering or in a bath – bring this conflict to a head.
There are quintessential Ford moments: Adams’s final appearance in an emerald green dress is one. For longtime fans of Ford in both his fashion and cinematic offerings, this was a gratifying moment capable of eliciting a gasp. But even this is challenged, with Susan removing her signature burgundy lip to reveal imperfection and deeply rooted unhappiness.
Tom Ford is, undeniably, a master aesthete. His work is perfectly visually captivating and even in the most horrifying elements of the film, he manages to sustain your gaze when you want to look away the most.