In the best scene in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, a holiday drive on a sleepy West Texas thoroughfare becomes an auto-terrorist nightmare straight out of Spielberg’s Duel. When three accelerator-revving rednecks force suburban husband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) off the road in the coffin-black night, it sets in motion a grisly chain of horrors.
This is the first we see of the Hastings family, but it’s enough to empathize with them. The scenario is frighteningly plausible, and depopulated of heroes: To the belligerent trio’s skuzzy ringleader (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who goes from menacing motorist to molester of Tony’s daughter in a matter of minutes, Tony is milquetoast, uncertain, even overly trusting of the perpetrators, and far too fazed by a broken nose.
The effectiveness of the scene is in no way diminished by our knowledge that Tony Hastings isn’t real, in the sense that most movie characters, for a couple of hours anyway, seem as real as you and me. He’s a fiction within a fiction, sprung from the pages of a soon-to-be-published novel — called Nocturnal Animals — written by Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), a once-struggling writer.
When we see the scenes of Tony’s assault and subsequent quest for justice, moments suffused with gut-wrenching panic, we’re seeing the cinematography of the reader of Nocturnal Animals as she devours an early copy over the span of a few fraught nights. Her name is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a Los Angeles gallerist with a penchant for ghastly goth makeup. Edward was her previous husband, and they haven’t seen each other in nearly 20 years. When she tries to open the package containing the book, she gets a paper cut. This omen is ignored.
Nocturnal Animals, which is based on a similarly layered 1993 novel called Tony and Susan, is a unusual and jarring mélange: It’s two movies in one, and each contrasts so sharply with the other that’s a feat of dexterity to believe the Ford directed them both. This is particularly true of the book-within-the-film, which plays out like a grisly neo-noir that harks to the Coens at their best — morbid, locally colored pulp fiction, spiked with jolting comedy, the best of which arrives in the form of Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, customarily extraordinary), the tactless sheriff assigned to Tony Hastings’ case. If you’re like me, you’ll feel connected to the spartan logic and elemental single-mindedness of the book Nocturnal Animals, to the point that anytime Susan puts it down and resumes her bourgeois life, it feels like a thrilling TV broadcast that’s just cut to commercial.
It’s these scenes that strike one as more Tom Fordish, if a fashion designer who has directed two films can be ascribed a style. It’s an L.A. universe of cosseted people with too much plastic surgery wearing clothes purchasable only by the One Percent — Ford told Variety he dressed his characters in Prada, Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel — who are riven by First World problems. To be fair, Ford is aware of the comfort and shallowness of his milieu. “Our world is a lot less painful than the real world,” one character admits.
And yet his satire is weak — and obvious — tea compared to the subtle subversion of the great bourgeois critic Douglas Sirk, or to the shocking extremism of Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon, a more radical picture the more you think about it. At first, it’s easy to be hopeful that Ford’s film will be their equal.
Nocturnal Animals opens on an exceptional, impossible-to-top credits montage of nude, morbidly obese women of a certain age unself-consciously jiggling their fleshy bodies against a sinfully red backdrop, like something spawned from the twisted yet beautiful marriage of David Lynch and Paolo Sorrentino. It’s disappointing that all that boundary-pushing video is just an art project in Susan’s gallery. (A few shots later, Ford cuts to the gallery’s exterior, in which a construction crane sits idle next to one of those tacky, monumental Jeff Koons balloon-dog sculptures, maybe the best deadpan joke in the lousy half of Nocturnal Animals.)
Whenever Ford cuts away from Tony Hastings’ desperate descent into both a personal and objective hell, the movie feels like a museum piece itself, existing in its rarefied bubble, either smug about its self-hating commentary or tone-deaf about its more earnest moments, which arrive in the form of stolid flashbacks from Susan and Edward’s relationship. Close your eyes, and you’ll hear a soap opera; open them, and you’ll see one, too, unsalvageable even considering the gifts of Gyllenhaal and Adams.
As the movie peters toward a conclusion so anticlimactic it borders on parody, it becomes ever clearer that Edward’s novel is a veiled poison-pen letter to his ex. And his increasingly graphic images of torment and vengeance become ever-more important: They provide the only blood in this movie’s veins.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS. Director: Tom Ford; Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michael Shannon, Armie Hammer, Isla Fisher, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen; Distributor: Focus; Opens: Friday at Cinemark Palace 20 in Boca Raton and The Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale; it opens at most area theaters Nov. 23.