Directed by Tom Ford
Opens November 18
Susan Morrow, the protagonist of the conjugal thriller Nocturnal Animals, appears to have it all: a preposterously handsome husband, a sleek modern home, and the high-society clout that comes with being a prominent LA gallerist. In his first film since his 2009 debut, the stiff A Single Man, fashion designer–turned-filmmaker Tom Ford lavishes attention on even the most minuscule markers of opulence. One early shot reveals an entire bowl of artichokes resting nonchalantly on the kitchen counter; another discreetly exposes the watermark on a posh piece of letterhead. And yet Susan, played by Amy Adams in a performance that intriguingly balances the steely and the soft, has come to feel like a stranger among all these things, deeply disillusioned by the art world and repeatedly rebuffed by her wayward husband (Armie Hammer). This overwhelming sense of ennui sets the scene for the rather sour movie to follow.
The trailer for Nocturnal Animals seems to promise a puzzle-box neo-noir, one that channels Brian De Palma’s arch odes to Hitchcock while simultaneously making way for Old Hollywood levels of sweeping glamour. In actuality, the movie, adapted by Ford himself from a 1993 novel by Austin Wright, is something a little less compelling than that: an extended reflection on a failed relationship, filled in around the edges with some stray mystery elements. One day, out of the blue, Susan receives a manuscript written by her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t otherwise heard from in years. As she reads the novel over the course of a few sleepless nights, the action proceeds to unfold on-screen, chapter by chapter, as a story within the story. In it, a man named Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his family get forced off a West Texas road by three hooligans (led by an overacting Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who wind up abducting, and then raping and killing, his wife and daughter. It’s left to Tony and a rugged local detective to seek justice. (Happily, Michael Shannon, as the lawman, does some of his most colorful work since Werner Herzog’s 2009 My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done.)
From a further set of flashbacks, the viewer eventually learns that Susan and Edward married over the objections of her domineering mother (Laura Linney) and that the couple’s relationship frayed in part due to Susan’s lack of faith in Edward as a writer. The grisly Texas scenes, which take up a very large portion of the film, thus take shape as Edward’s delayed emotional reckoning with the breakup of the marriage. All the while, present-day Susan seems alternately troubled by the fiction’s obvious parallels to her past and tickled by the fact that, to her surprise, the novel has actual merit. But as a seductive fiction, Nocturnal Animals itself leaves something to be desired. Its deep-bench cast (Adams look-alike Isla Fisher shows up for a few brief moments, as do Michael Sheen and Jena Malone) and overly complicated structure ultimately feel out of sync with its essential themes of love and cruelty. Long story short, despite some nice performances and a surplus of style, this tale of betrayal only winds up betraying itself.