I have a mental list of the professions that do and do not turn out good film directors. Screenwriters? Less often than you'd think. Music video directors? About half the time. Editors? Rarely happens, but they're usually pretty good. Producers? Surprisingly, yes. Actors? Good directors of performance, yes; of the camera, almost never. Effects artists? Absolutely not, not even Stan Winston. Cinematographers? Hell no. Every single film or short I've seen directed by a former cinematographer has been a maddening self-indulgent mess of style and absurd lighting trickery, save for the work of one man. I don't mean to say terrible things against cinematographers, but maybe it's because their job is all about the look of things, and they can too easily lose sight of all the other things that a director is responsible for. In this respect, they remind me of the newest addition to my list of careers that positively do not prepare one for the challenges of helming a feature length motion picture, the fashion designer.
I do not know positively one way or the other if anyone prior to Tom Ford has made precisely that entirely un-intuitive jump from one industry to another, but I hope not: because Ford's debut film, A Single Man, is exactly the worst case scenario of what pops into your head when you hear the phrase "movie directed by a fashion designer and gay icon". It is visually devouring, so extremely fussed-over and precise and classy and utterly arid that it chokes the life out of you - it is the experience of being suffocated by a velvet cloth soaked in Grand Marnier, and as the last threads of life exit your body, you get at last a clear view of your murderer, and he is a statuesque teenage androgyne with immaculately tousled shoulder-length hair that he effortlessly flicks out of his steel-blue eyes as he watches your death spasms with studied indifference. It is a film resolutely concerned with its visual surface, and by God, that surface is put together with the utmost care: every lingering, desaturated shot and deliberately framed, empty-space heavy composition, and every grainy, abstract insert shot has the thudding intensity of Purpose; more often than not a Purpose that Ford stole from better filmmakers, but if mere thievery were A Single Man's only crime, I really don't suppose I'd have anything mean to say against it.
Ford, unfortunately, steals indiscriminately and without understanding what he does; and so his film is crammed to the stuffing point with visual notions that are all individually striking (I hesitate to use the word "beautiful"), and completely and utterly incoherent when you start lining them all up together; to say nothing of how excruciatingly fatiguing it is to watch this much Visual Art getting thrown at your face over the course of 99 minutes. I do not like the word "pretentious", and I like even less to use it as an insult, but A Single Man is a phenomenally pretentious movie, in the way that only a debut film can ever be. Ford is like a very well-traveled film student who knows the films he wants to emulate, but doesn't know any better way to that than by crudely emulating shots and ideas, letting his film strangle in the process.
Exhibit A: for most of the movie, our protagonist is very sullen and depressed, and to show this, everything is extremely desaturated, almost to Clint Eastwood/Tom Stern levels of desaturation. Sometimes, he will remember a pleasant moment or something nice will happen to him, like having a pretty boy smile at him, and then the saturation will ratchet right up, past "normal" and right into "prostitute's makeup". This is already a fairly obvious and boring way to visual represent emotion, but the fact that the extremes are so, well, extreme is enough to make "obvious and boring" into "intensely aggravating". And I have not even mentioned: though usually, this saturation change happens at cuts, occasionally the shot itself will just suddenly start fading up with ungainly, over-hot colors, like there was somebody was twisting a knob back and forth. But the only knob here is Tom Ford.
Exhibit B: the grain. What about the grain? Exactly. A Single Man is a surpassing grainy movie, enough so that if you have walked through life without ever thinking about film grain, it would take but this one film to set you right. And I have absolutely no idea why it's there, unless it's some vague concept that film grain is artsier than otherwise.
At any rate, Ford doubtlessly did not go to film school and therefore did not get to work all of this crap out of his system when he was 18, so perhaps he will have learned something and his next feature won't look like somebody tried and failed to cross-breed Wong Kar-Wai and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
So over-concerned is the director with getting his perfect, claustrophobic visuals across that he manages to largely forget about the story; which is just as well, because A Single Man, adapted from a Christopher Isherwood novel, does not have a particularly interesting story. It's 1962, and there's a Cuban missile crisis on, but all that English professor George Falconer (Colin Firth) can think about is how nice it might be if he died, in a nuclear conflagration or otherwise, as he has spent 8 months since the death of Jim (Matthew Goode), his partner of 16 years, wandering around in a miserable fugue, wondering when it will feel good to be alive again. His alcoholic best friend Charley (Julianne Moore) tries to perk him up by suggesting that he should go straight with her, but it really takes the tenuous, hinted affections of a rail-thin twink student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), to remind George that there is vitality and goodness in life. Then George suddenly dies of a fucking heart attack. If you read that spoiler-tagged text, you're welcome, that I saved you the bother of seeing the piece of crap.
Colin Firth puts everything he has into making George a credible character, and in terms of sheer raw challenge and craft, it probably is his best performance ever, like people are saying. But it's extremely far from his best character, and without that, no amount of talent can make a difference. There is in A Single Man a massive deficit of incident, psychology, or just about any of the other things that make drama dramatic. One would have hoped that the first prominent American film with a central gay male protagonist since Milk would at least bother to find something interesting for that gay male protagonist to do or think, but this is a stifled, pointless movie, and just in case you managed to ferret out some kind of point, along comes the ending to say, "Haha, fuck you, I don't think so". If I had any outrage left over for a movie that had already battered me into submission with its visuals and then bored me into a coma with its plot, I might try to be pissed that Ford and co-writer David Scearce try to slide that ethics-busting teacher/student quasi-relationship in under the radar, but I'll leave that exercise for those who have any emotional investment in the film other than pronounced joy when the end credits start.