Seven years after his critically acclaimed directorial debut A Single Man, celebrated fashion icon Tom Ford is back with an altogether nastier and twistier proposition in the form of Nocturnal Animals. Adapted from the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright, it's the story of high-flying art gallery owner Susan (played by Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript from her author ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she divorced in acrimonious circumstances. As Susan begins to read the treatment, she becomes engrossed in its shocking and violent story of revenge and begins to perceive that its bitter, unsettling message is directly aimed at her, compelling her to reflect on the state of her life and former marriage. With its complex story playing out across three strands (Susan in the present day, the flashbacks to her life with Tony, and the dramatised events of the manuscript, again featuring Gyllenhaal), there's no denying that Nocturnal Animals features enough pulpy intrigue and darkness to keep viewers hooked, although ultimately it's little more than coffee table psychology dressed up in ultra-stylish clothing. Nevertheless the superb performances (especially Michael Shannon as fictional Sheriff Bobby) hold the attention, and the movie gets a reliable injection of class on the soundtrack front courtesy of brilliant Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski, here reuniting with Ford after A Single Man (which featured additional score by Shigeru Umebayashi).
Over the last few years Korzeniowski has carved out a name for himself as a purveyor of superbly rich, classically wrought emotion in projects like the aforementioned A Single Man, Romeo and Juliet, Copernicus' Star and hit TV series Penny Dreadful. His music invariably drips with a sense of European classicism and prestige and Nocturnal Animals very much continues in this vein. However given the altogether more uncomfortable nature of the movie it's subtly different in its tone from his previous Ford collaboration: whereas A Single Man was melancholy and at times achingly sad, this is altogether more malevolent and brooding, embellished with a sense of operatic melodrama that keeps the listener at something of a remove.
The score is built around the moody, undulating strings of the main theme introduced in 'Wayward Sisters', a masterful piece of grandiose mystery writing, which in conjunction with the movie's intentionally provocative opening sequence cleverly plays into the story's central battle between empty artifice and sincere creative expression. It inevitably calls to mind thriller music pioneers like Bernard Herrmann, although one can hear clear echoes of contemporary composers like Alberto Iglesias whose scores for Pedro Almodovar similarly ripple with a sense of intrigue. Winding its way through the score and providing a psychological underpinning that weaves all three timelines together, Susan's theme makes a fulsome orchestral statement in 'Restless', on high, wavering strings in the desolate 'The Field' and in the not entirely cathartic 'City Lights', cannily teasing at some sort of musical resolution without ever quite getting there. It's a superb theme for musically embodying the eddys and ripples occuring within Susan's mind as she begins to come to terms with herself and her own mistakes.
With Susan's theme acting as the overraching score idea (it is ultimately her story, after all), the remainder of the music dramatises the events of the manuscript itself. Here again the string section dominates but in an altogether different way: turbulent, tempestuous and choppy rhythms take over to mirror the dark meta-narrative that reflects on Susan's personal failings. The tension-building set-pieces are superb, particularly the escalating, layered strings of 'Off the Road', 'Crossroads', 'Mothers' and 'Revenge', the latter in particular fashioning an insistently gripping ostinato rhythm of which the likes of Herrmann himself would be proud. Interspersed with these angular interludes are glacial notes of calm, but there's always a sense that the beauty is intended as ironic rather than sincere, a musical depiction of the savage riposte Tony has directed at his ex-wife. The second track 'Exhibition' layers breathing effects over the suffocating strings to create an intentionally erotic atmosphere, 'A Solitary Woman' passes the melody on an attractive piano accompaniment and the aforementioned 'The Field' is one of the score's most attractive, if sad, moments. The latter's extension of Susan's theme finally reaches its payoff in the magnificent 'Table for Two', in which the Herrmann-esque sense of opulence reaches stunning heights to bring the story to a close. It's one of the finest pieces of film music heard in 2016, compelling us to reflect on the nature of the film's characters and our own animalistic impulses.
Indeed, the entire score is one of the year's most accomplished and successful, a gripping psychological journey expertly rendered in music by one of our finest, least heralded film score talents. Both Korzeniowski and Ford ought to be applauded for sidestepping the synthetic, electonically processed cliches of so many contemporary thriller scores: there's a gloriously engrossing, old-fashioned nature to the Nocturnal Animals score that honours the legacy of films and composers gone by. Clearly Ford's wickedly devious movie is the ideal canvas on which Korzeniowski can paint in enjoyably bold strokes, yet it's also a soundtrack that conceals sly nuances that embellish the film's narrative, the sign of a truly great score. A sophisticated and enticing treat, the score album is available in CD format or for download at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.