In “Nocturnal Animals,” revenge is a dish best served in manuscript form. One ordinary day in her unhappy marriage, cash-strapped Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan, played by Amy Adams, receives a plain brown envelope. Inside is the new novel written by her ex-husband, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, titled “Nocturnal Animals,” with a note attached suggesting they reunite.
Intrigued, Susan dives into the novel while her philandering husband (Armie Hammer) is away in New York on alleged business. Adapter-director Tom Ford, in his second feature, sets up three distinct narratives. Susan’s life in the present interweaves with grad-school flashbacks depicting her time with the promising, dreamy novelist, the one Susan’s status-conscious mother (Laura Linney, fiercely good in a single scene) sees as the loser of all time.
Then there’s the story of the novel itself, which plays out as a movie within a movie. It’s pure revenge pulp, violent and vindictive, in the “Straw Dogs” vein. Gyllenhaal and Isla Fisher are the city couple, traveling by car with their teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) one dark West Texas night. They’re terrorized by a group of thugs led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Kidnapping, rape, murder and retribution all get their due in this nightmare yarn, which has the primary benefit of giving Michael Shannon, in one of his best performances, the role of a laconic police detective who, as he says, “looks into things around here.”
But where is “here,” exactly? None of the stories feels quite like real life. That’s deliberate, I think. In director Ford’s hands, the LA sequences present Susan’s life as a series of arch and bizarrely comic vignettes, as if Weimar-era Berlin had somehow landed in the Hollywood hills. Susan despairs that her career, along with her marriage, is built on shiny surfaces that amount to, in her words, “total junk.”
Ford’s critique of this world is dicey; as a director, coming out of his career as a fashion designer and high-gloss, sexually provocative advertising force, he’s a bit of a hypocrite, damning the tragic glamour even as he’s drooling over it. Here and there in “Nocturnal Animals” Ford places his actors’ bare skin (he has described himself as “an equal opportunity objectifier”) against deeply saturated red velvet, be the characters alive or dead. His imagery is striking, certainly, and “Nocturnal Animals” is never dull, thanks to the careful manipulation of light and space, in collaboration with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. But the prettiness of it all can be suffocating.
As “Nocturnal Animals,” the novel, unfolds in Susan’s imagination, it becomes clear that her ex never got over her lack of faith in his work. I confess to some confusion in the early going; some of Susan’s reactions to the story turns are so extreme, I assumed that the kidnapping/murder plot came straight out of Susan’s real life. Ford adapted the 1993 Austin Wright novel “Tony and Susan,” and the LA scenes are all Ford’s invention. The worlds inhabited so vividly by Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon and company owe something to David Lynch, and even J.D. Salinger (Salinger’s 1949 story “The Laughing Man” likewise concerned a hostile act of fiction). There might be less than meets the eye here. But what meets the eye is pretty striking.
☆☆☆ 1/2 out of 5
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Shannon.
Director: Tom Ford.
Running time: 1:57.
Rated: R, for violence, menace, graphic nudity and language.