Tom Ford’s sophomore feature (his first was 2009’s has been praised and panned, and both camps have a point. But to dismiss this elegant thriller on the charge of its embrace of the obvious is to deny a wealth of engrossing pleasures, gripping tensions, and layers of revenge — sweet, bitter, and violent.
The story, adapted by Ford from the novel by Austin Wright, unfolds in three layers. The first is the present, where Susan (Amy Adams) lives an emotionally gutted life in a gilded world. She’s got the beautiful house in the hills of Los Angeles; the handsome broker husband, Walker (Armie Hammer); the upscale art gallery — and she’s got Ford, the former sage of Gucci, to design the pieces, making each element impossibly perfect and perfectly impossible. “What right do I have to not be happy?” she asks. “I have everything.” But Susan is not happy. The house is too exquisite to live in. The gallery is a repository for her long-discarded artistic ambitions. Walker is too soigné to be a real husband, their chemistry is zero, and we soon find out he’s philandering.
A package arrives. It’s the manuscript of a novel from her ex-husband Edward ( Jake Gyllenhaal), and before she’s even got it open, it has drawn blood — she gets a paper cut from the wrapping. With Walker away, Susan settles in to read, often in the bathtub. The novel — titled
(something Edward dubbed her for her insomnia) — is dedicated to her. And it’s a gut-wrenching nightmare of a story about a family’s troubles on a West Texas highway in the middle of a terrible night. She has no problem imagining Edward as the novel’s protagonist, Tony, and herself as the wife, Laura (played with an uncanny resemblance to Adams by Isla Fisher). Delving into the novel’s vicious events, Susan begins to read a commentary on their marriage and its wrenching breakup.
The movie’s third layer takes us back to when Edward and Susan were young and in love. She was an aspiring artist. He had dreams of becoming a novelist. But as she confesses to a friend, “I didn’t have enough faith in him.” Her mother — played as a coiffed, pearl-draped matron by Laura Linney in an incisive cameo — warns her that Edward doesn’t have the ambition and drive to match her expectations. And when Susan glares with contempt, she adds, “Just wait, dear. We all turn into our mothers.”
Back to the book, which is the meat and sinew of this movie. A bit of time has passed since that night of unrelieved tension and horror. Enter Detective Bobby Andes (a superb Michael Shannon), with his cowboy hat and his smoker’s rasp, and the endgame of revenge is on.
Despite his occasional fondness for hitting the nail on the head, Ford has constructed a complex, stylish, engrossing movie and has assembled a cast that delivers superbly, from cameos (Michael Sheen) to relative unknowns (Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the baddest of the bad guys) to the terrific trio of Adams, Gyllenhaal, and Shannon that tops the bill.
— Jonathan Richards