Art can make us squirm. That’s the theme of Nocturnal Animals, a theme telegraphed with almost sadistic clarity as we watch, under the opening credits, a series of obese naked women shimmying in slow motion, their folds of voluminous flesh wielded like weapons.
Those videos, as it turns out, are works of art on display in the Los Angeles gallery of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a contemporary art dealer who, over the course of writer-director Tom Ford’s creepily elegant, enigmatic new film, encounters several others. They include: a hyper-realist sculpture of an animal impaled by arrows; a painting consisting of the word “revenge,” writ large; and a photograph of a man aiming a rifle at another man.
Message received, loud and clear: Acts of the imagination can unsettle, disgust and frighten us, even wound us — not in the flesh, but deep in the tender psyche — just as surely as actual ones. Occasionally, they also make us think. (But more on that later.)
The most disturbing artifice Susan comes across in this story — which Ford, in his first project since A Single Man, has adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan — is a manuscript. The book is an unpublished novel by Susan’s ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a struggling writer whom she unceremoniously dumped 19 years ago, when it became clear that his career was going nowhere.
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Called Nocturnal Animals, Edward’s book plays out, as Susan reads it, as a film-within-a-film, one that Ford devotes more time, energy and attention to than the framing story, which comes across, in the director’s signature high style, as shallow and artificial.
That world — Susan has a handsome second husband (Armie Hammer), an impossibly luxe house and fabulous friends — may look comfortable, but Susan is an insomniac, and her husband is cheating on her.
By way of reassurance, a friend (Michael Sheen) reminds her that, “Our world is a lot less painful than the real world” — meaning the one not insulated from suffering by money and power.
His ironic line, of course is another signal of Ford’s intention to tell a meta story about the power of storytelling itself.
In Nocturnal Animals, the plot of Edward’s book — unspooling in Susan’s head and on the screen in front of us for much of the film — feels at once more real and, paradoxically, less so than the life that Susan leads. Adding to this sense of disorientation is a third story, told in flashback, showing Susan and Edward’s history as a couple, the demise of which has left her wracked by guilt over her selfishness and impulsive behavior.
The Nocturnal Animals of Edward’s novel reads, to Susan, like a nasty revenge fantasy. During a vacation road trip with his wife and teenage daughter, the novel’s protagonist, Tony, is forced off the road by a trio of sadistic thugs, who end up doing horrible things to his family.
Underscoring the roman-à-clef nature of that narrative, the wife is played by Isla Fisher, who is a doppelganger for Adams. Gyllenhaal plays Tony, with Ellie Bamber as their daughter, Michael Shannon as a lawman investigating the aftermath of the crime, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as its chief perpetrator.
What, we’re meant to wonder, is Edward’s purpose in writing this?
At times, Susan appears tortured by the vicarious anger it seems to express and also titillated by it. Or maybe, just maybe, she is happy to experience a weird catharsis at the hands of the book’s punitive plot, which can come across as Edward’s crudely lurid and violent attempt to teach his ex-wife a lesson.
Those are less interesting questions than the ones that Nocturnal Animals raises about Ford’s goals, and whether he in fact achieves them. The story-inside-the-story is as hard to watch at times as those slow-motion videos that Ford opens his film with, and that can be read as fat-shaming or as critiques of fat-shaming.
Similarly, the Nocturnal Animals of Ford’s movie is as slippery a read as Edward’s book. It’s a tale bluntly told that arouses intense, evanescent emotion and then leaves you haunted, long afterward, by provocative but arguably answerable questions.
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon
Rated: R (violence, strong language, graphic nudity)
Running time: 116 min.