For his second film, his first in seven years, fashion designer turned writer-director Tom Ford has chosen to make a lurid film noir, but one done so stylishly that it transcends the genre, as some early De Palma did, though without the Hitchcockian overtones (indeed, the reminiscences here are to De Palma himself, down to a score by Abel Korzeniowski that sounds like Pino Donaggio). With “Nocturnal Animals” Ford manages to turn what might have been a mere potboiler into a work of art, though some might find it a distinctly unpleasant one. But if Douglas Sirk can be regarded as a having transformed weepy melodrama into glossy art, why shouldn’t the same metamorphosis be possible for a cinematic form that’s usually been thought of as distinctly low-class?
Ford’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Austin Wright, begins with Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), the owner of a swanky Los Angeles art gallery, receiving a parcel containing proofs of the titular novel written by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a childhood family friend and aspiring writer whom she wed despite the objections of her overbearing mother (Laura Linney) and dumped—in an exceptionally cruel way, as will be revealed—for handsome hunk Hutton (Armie Hammer). She’s now married to Hutton, a businessman who’s desperately trying to maintain their sumptuous lifestyle despite financial setbacks. He’s distant, often gone and—as will become apparent—unfaithful.
As Susan begins reading the novel—dedicated to her—we see its narrative played out in sequences juxtaposed with her present-day story and flashbacks to earlier days. In the book, Tony (whom Susan imagines as Edward, and who is played by Gyllenhaal) is driving across Texas late at night, along with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher, with no little physical similarity to Susan) and rebellious teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber). Their car is forced off the road by a trio of nasty rednecks led by Ryan (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Humiliating the impotent Tony, they take the woman away, leaving him stranded, though he treks to safety. Enter local lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a ramrod-straight detective who, despite initial reservations about Tony’s weakness, develops a bond with the man and a steely determination to find and punish the perpetrators.
It would be unfair to reveal too much of what happens from here—suffice it to say that the level of nastiness and violence depicted in Susan’s visualization of Edward’s novel grows increasingly high, inevitably raising the question of the lengths to which anyone might go to secure what he perceives as justice, or to expiate for what he sees as his own failures. Reading the tale, moreover, compels her to come to terms with the mistakes she has made in her life—which will prompt her to take a decision that could bring some emotional closure.
Working with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, production designer Shane Valentine, and costume designer Arianne Phillips, Ford stages the action with a precision that verges on obsession. The contemporary sequences—those at the gallery and the sleek estate Susan shares with Hutton—exude a decadent elegance, a tone accentuated by the appearance of Michael Sheen and Andrea Riseborough as a party-throwing society couple, and of Jena Malone and Kristin Bauer van Straten as positively creepy co-workers of Susan’s. The novel-based storyline, on the other hand, is shot in a glaringly vivid style (notice the red light that engulfs characters as certain points) that points up its pulpy quality. Joan Sobel’s editing melds all the elements together into a whole that, while inevitably not seamless, has a smooth quality that’s remarkable under the circumstances.
The performances are nothing if not committed. Adams, in a second splendid recent turn (alongside “Arrival”) has the more subdued, reactive role, but conveys the charged intensity beneath Susan’s controlled exterior, while Gyllenhaal throws himself with abandon into the part of Tony, while making Edward sedately likable through artistically driven. (With films like this one, along with “Enemy,” “Nightcrawler” and “Demolition,” he’s certainly made up for the debacle that was “Prince of Persia.”)
But there are other great turns here, too. Taylor-Johnson brings genuinely unsettling power to the psychopathic Ryan, while Linney is brutally right-on in her single scene. Shannon’s crowd-rousing turn as a rangy Texan cop on the way out, meanwhile, can stand comparison to Jeff Bridges’ more avuncular one in “Hell or High War.” He’s becoming one of the most reliably compelling actors working today.
The opening titles, by the way, are eye-popping: a montage of nude dancing models with a look one will likely never find on the cover of Vogue. Don’t get to the theatre late. And while the ending might frustrate you at first, think of how unsatisfying anything else would have been.