At its weakest moments, A Single Man feels like an advertisement for some non-existent film also called A Single Man—a long, long trailer for a serious drama with literary origins. The images seem to have a gloss to them, like magazine paper, and we are treated to a string of portentous clocks, animals and reflections. But if it's possible to recommend a film solely on the basis of a few scenes, or a few stray shots, edits, sounds, or ideas, then I'll recommend A Single Man over many other films. Why? Because despite Julianne Moore's terrible British accent, there's her face and the tone of her voice, and despite Nicholas Hoult, there's the way Colin Firth looks at him, and despite the family next door there's Matthew Goode, and, despite every element of the film that is facile or narrowminded, there are the moments that are unbendingly intelligent.
But really, if I were to pick out what was commendable about A Single Man, I'd pick a scene completely extraneous to its deathly serious plot. Firth pulls up at a liquor store beside a billboard advertising Psycho. On the way in, he sees a handsome stranger talking on the phone; on the way out, they bump into each other. The stranger drops his cigarettes and Firth spills his booze all over them. He offers to buy a new pack and smokes two cigarettes with the man, first by the phone booth, then on the trunk of his car. They talk in English and Spanish. The stranger thinks Firth's college professor is trying to pick him up; really, he's just struck.
It's the moment when all of director Tom Ford's sensibilities about acting, editing, images, color correction and dialogue come together, leaning on one another to form something like a house of cards that won't topple. As in a John Cook or a Jim Jarmusch film—that is, in the sort of film Wim Wenders always sets out to make but rarely does—nothing seems to happen because something is constantly happening. The stranger's lips, and the way smoke curls out of them (a bit like the way Raphael Sil smokes in Eye of the Storm—the lower lip some swamp out of which a fog rises), become an event, as does a change in the sunlight (which it took Jarmusch until The Limits of Control to discover but Ford seems familiar with right away). You can toss out the car in the snow, the Cuban Missile Crisis chattering in the background, the man contemplating suicide—just leave us the phone call, Firth and Goode basking on a rock in black & white or reading books together in their house, that nighttime swim in the ocean, the Spaniard at the liquor store or any of the other moments when the film seems struck by something it doesn’t attempt to explain.