PLOT A woman reads her ex-husband’s novel and wonders if its violence is aimed at her.
CAST Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
RATED R (strong violence, language)
BOTTOM LINE Gripping, well acted, stylish — yet the twin plots and vague connections don’t add up to a satisfying whole.
“Nocturnal Animals,” Tom Ford’s strange combination of art world drama and rural thriller, opens with images of several morbidly obese, nearly nude women gyrating against a brothel-red background, their loose flesh swinging in slow motion. It’s an attention-grabber, all right, and it’s already sparked some controversy for what some have seen as mockery and exploitation. Ford has defended it as “beautiful,” but here’s the main problem with his opening sequence: It has nothing to do with the movie.
That’s emblematic of “Nocturnal Animals,” a gripping and evocative — and well-acted — movie that never gets its point across. Juxtaposing the life of a shallow Los Angeles gallery owner, Susan (Amy Adams), with the brutal violence of a new novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), “Nocturnal Animals” tells two stories that could work dazzlingly well on their own. Forced together, though, they create a tangle of uncertain connections.
In Edward’s novel, Gyllenhaal also plays Tony, a man whose wife and daughter are murdered by a smirking Texas sleazeball (a very good Aaron Taylor-Johnson). It’s a visceral, heart-pumping story that increases in intensity when Sheriff Andes (Michael Shannon, dependably menacing) proposes some rough justice. Each new development shocks us as much as it does Susan, who frequently throws down the book in horror.
Back in Susan’s world — the “real” one — things are ugly in a different way. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is clearly having an affair, and we see in rueful flashbacks how her previous marriage fell apart. Today, even though Edward’s novel strikes her as a howl of rage, Susan feels her love for him slowly rekindling.
Ford (“A Single Man”) remains a terrific director with an eye for color, texture and detail. Every scene here works well — including that infamous opening — but as a whole, his ambitious movie simply doesn’t add up.