A wealthy but unhappy gallery owner who married for art and love, then remarried for comfort and money, examines the choices she’s made when reading her ex-husband’s metaphorically autobiographical novel in “Nocturnal Animals,” a neonoir psychothriller.
Written and directed by Tom Ford, this lurid and trashy but artfully woven and feverishly dramatic film is exciting.
Adapted from the Austin Wright novel “Tony and Susan,” the movie contains alluring surfaces, lost highways, doppelgangers and revenge mentalities, suggesting a mix of Hitchcock, Lynch, Peckinpah and Almodovar.
As with Ford’s impressive debut “A Single Man,” it features an efficient use of the flashback and a protagonist isolated by a romantic loss.
Amy Adams, in un-“Arrival” mode, plays Susan Morrow, who wanted to be an artist decades ago but now owns a gallery where she presents other artists’ work, which she privately deems “junk.”
Susan’s home life, too, which involves a steely-looking mansion in Los Angeles and a philandering businessman husband (Armie Hammer), is unfulfilling.
The suspense begins when Susan receives a manuscript of a book by her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t seen in nearly 20 years.
As she reads his pulpy violent novel, Ford presents its story onscreen and alternates its Texas-set scenes with those of Susan’s daily life.
In the book within a movie, a man named Tony (played by a bearded Gyllenhaal) is driving down a road with his family when three redneck creeps, led by a sadist named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), force his car off the road. They abduct Tony’s wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) and then even worse things happen.
Impatient with the sluggish courtroom process, Tony works with laconic cowboy cop Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) to bring about a swifter, less civil form of judgment.
As Susan reads Edward’s novel, memories of her graduate-school days with Edward begin flowing. In these flashbacks — the film’s third story — Susan stops believing in Edward and leaves him.
Is Edward’s novel revenge for how Susan treated him during their marriage? Susan thinks so, and this unnerves her.
Though nothing mind-blowing or socially significant happens in this melodramatic film about love, betrayal, guilt and retribution, Ford weaves three partially baked stories into a satisfyingly complex confection with elegance, verve, and (a few ambiguous moments notwithstaning) clarity.
He infuses the past into the present beautifully and doesn’t lose his handle on the feeling at the core.
Adams, slightly hampered by the busy plot, carries the film as a woman realizing distressing truths about herself.
Gyllenhaal, especially as Tony, powerfully portrays anger and desperation. He and Shannon, who works textural magic with a seemingly stereotypic role, are terrific together.
There also are top-rate bite-sized turns from Jena Malone, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen and Laura Linney, who gets honors for cameo of the year as Susan’s Texas society-matron mother.
Three and a half stars
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Written and directed by Tom Ford
Running time 1 hour, 56 minutes