Starring Amy Adams. Rated 14A. Now playing
Tom Ford's movies are strange and baffling paradoxes, with big thematic ambitions mixing with campy melodramatic turns.
Nocturnal Animals feels like a tawdry paperback but looks like a Taschen coffee-table book. Its polished surfaces and lush orchestral strains make you think of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock, but then he takes an abrupt left turn into gritty Coen brothers-brand violence. And the bizarre opening sequence of shivering flesh and parade pom-poms—a nod to American excess? It out-Lynches David Lynch.
Ultimately, Nocturnal Animals is a beautiful, and beautifully acted, trainwreck—and like a trainwreck, you won't be able to avert your eyes from it.
Amy Adams plays Susan, a rich L.A. gallery owner who is deeply unhappy. She lives in a gaping architectural masterpiece with cold concrete walls and a Jeff Koontz sculpture sitting poolside. Her marriage feels equally empty, with a handsome husband (Armie Hammer) who's philandering on the side and losing his business.
Then, one day, Susan receives an envelope with a manuscript in it. The book is written by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), and as she reads it, its plot becomes a film within the film. It's a harrowing story of a family driven off a desert road one night and terrorized by a Texas gang. What follows is the father's struggle with guilt and ugly revenge. As Susan reads it, she casts Edward in the lead role; his wife and daughter have the same red hair she and her daughter do, their house and retro Mercedes echo her own, and it's clear she's populating the thriller with people and things from her own surroundings--the way we so often do with novels. In the repeated scenes where she has to remove her designer glasses and stop reading because it's so intense, her thoughts wander back to her own fraught past with Edward.
Adams brings more to Susan than the script gives her, conveying an abyss of sadness and amorphous regret in every far-off gaze. But her world is so artificially well-appointed, it's impossible to empathize with her. She's not likable and she's surrounded by a gang of cartoonishly shallow fashion victims. Sometimes Ford's films are so stylized they're distancing. That may be the mood he's going for, but after a while, it all feels irritatingly affected.
Gyllenhaal, in both roles, is Susan's opposite: passionate, honest, tormented. The Texan plot is all dingy desert trailers, with a mindblowing turn by Michael Shannon as a gruff cowboy cop who helps Gyllenhaal's character track down the nocturnal animals who wronged him.
The violence in the book's story feels real and horrific, and that poses a problem when we switch back to the artificial world of the main plot. Even the memories of Edward and Susan's romance follow melodramatic soap-opera turns. But the former Gucci designer aspires to much more. Ford wants to talk about art and selling out: Susan has lost faith in Edward's ability to write, and she's abandoned her own creativity for commerce in her career.
The story, based on the 1993 novel Tony and Susan, ends up raising big ideas about money, art, and revenge, and the traits that make us strong or weak. But everything is warped and exaggerated by the obsessive production design and swelling orchestral music. Most damagingly, the climactic finale, set in the kind of over-the-top restaurant that only exists in movies, becomes high camp in the process.
Not that you'll be able to look away.