Tom Ford's psychological drama Nocturnal Animals casts a masterful spell

The past returns to haunt a woman in Nocturnal Animals while a ginger tom in A Street Cat Named Bob gives a recovering addict reason to clean up his life

Animals, one figurative, one literal, take the stage this week.

In the psycho-drama Nocturnal Animals(M18, 117 minutes, opens tomorrow, 4/5 stars), the creature in question is Susan(Amy Adams), owner of a beyond-hip art gallery. The film’s title comes from the nickname given to her by ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), intended to be a wry comment on her insomnia.

But it is also the title of a manuscript that the ex, a struggling novelist, sends her.

Susan is both repulsed and fascinated by the story, a violent revenge fantasy with characters that read very much like Susan and Edward.

Writer-director Tom Ford plays with contrasting textures. The action flips between the book’s Texas locale (hot and dirty) and Susan’s Los Angeles home (cool and antiseptic).

The fictional world offers physical terrors while, in the real world, husbands and wives torture each other emotionally. The genres, too, change channels: Embedded in a domestic melodrama is a blood-soaked work of horror.

Amy Adams in Nocturnal Animals, a domestic melodrama that turns into a blood-soaked work of horror. PHOTO: UIP

The book is Edward’s voice speaking in the present, but what is he saying? Ford keeps it vague, so that everyone can have fun working out the answers hidden in the juxtaposition of the real and the fictional.

The fashion designer-turned film-maker does not stop there– he sprinkles images from all over the map, addressing the fine-art world, fat-shaming and ideas about men defining their self-worth by how much power and control they have over women.

On all these questions, Ford is vague, sometimes frustratingly so. Normally this is a sign of cowardice, disguised as not wanting to spoon feed answers to the audience.

But even as the questions build, the story and the images on the screen cast their own spell such that one is willing to put aside one’s puzzlement. The scene in which the sinister Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) goads a helpless, overpowered Tony (Gyllenhaal, this time as the book’s protagonist) is a masterwork in escalating dread.

The next film’s animal protagonist probably sleeps very well, thanks to the best-selling biography– and now film–A Street Cat Named Bob(PG13, 103 minutes, opens tomorrow, 3.5/5 stars).

A ginger tom shows up at the flat of recovering addict James Bowen (Luke Treadaway) and, for some reason, develops a fierce attachment to him, even following the singer to his busking spot in Covent Garden, and later resting on his shoulders as he sells newspapers on the street.

Bob the cat (played by the real Bob and other lookalikes) gives James a reason to clean up his life, boosted by a growing affection for his neighbour Betty (Ruta Gedmintas).

There are definite shades of Marley & Me (2008) here, another Yuletide season heart warmer about a pet who offers its human host emotional healing.

But where Marley was a sticky, treacly pudding,Bob offers a palate cleanser. Director Roger Spott is woode (Turner&Hooch, 1989;The 6th Day, 2000) and screen writers Tim John and Maria Nation avoid over-sweetening the recipe.Bob is the passive recipient of oohs and ahhs, and never lifts a paw to earn affection, except to give the occasional high-five. Other than the shoulder-sitting and high-fiving, Bob is true to his cat nature–aloof, fond of pampering and inscrutable.

After the success that was the 2015drama anthology 7 Letters, it was probably inevitable that we now have the romance compilation 4Love(PG, 98 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars).

The collection is billed “romantic comedy”, but there is little evidence of either word here; the romance,when it is not inorganic to the story, feels like a version of adult affection lifted from comics or movies. There are a couple of laughs here and there, but like the romance, it is buried under the moralising.

The first story, Love, Destiny, is the strongest. It is a tale of two lonely hearts (played by Maxi Lim and Cheryl Wee) who woo each other in the margins of a novel each takes, in turn, from a book rental shop. Director Raihan Halim understands well the format of the sweetly innocent and sincere short story.

The second story, Love, Extreme, helmed by Gilbert Chan, is an extended bit of gross-out physical comedy involving a disabled con man, excrement and a ring; the pungent comic bits grind to a halt when the cloying romance section begins.

Director Sam Loh dives into his preferred medium of sexy thriller in the third story, Love, Temptation. Doing it within the confines of a PG movie is a questionable decision.The result – a tale of infidelity and revenge starring actors Louis Wu, Shane Pow and Oon Shu An– is an undercooked mess.

The last short, Love,Remember, directed by Daniel Yam, is a didactic, sentimental and underserved examination of dementia and modern marital strife. It tells everyone that the secret to harmony today is the same as it was in the past– disregard present feelings, cling on to memories and just be more stoic. The result might be a stable relationship, but between two very miserable people.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2016, with the headline 'Animal ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe