Nocturnal Animals opens with rotating shots of obese nude women posing for a camera. The absurdity makes you laugh, the starkness makes you cringe, and the on-the-nose commentary on modern society and media provokes a purposeful eyebrow raise.
Fortunately, writer-director Tom Ford's latest feature doesn't get hung up on stinging cultural rebukes and vapid observations. Instead, the fashion designer and A Single Man auteur leads us down a far more interesting road: the place where art, emotion, and personal history converge, presented via a Texas highway at midnight and the torment that follows a heinous crime.
The film comes in three parts, all interwoven: present day with Susan (Amy Adams) as an unhappy art gallery owner in Los Angeles, the depiction of a book where a husband seeks vengeance for his lost wife and daughter, and flashbacks to the beginning and end of Susan's marriage to Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), the author of the aforementioned book.
It sounds confusing, but Ford layers everything nicely. Gyllenhaal, who double-dips as the book's main character Tony, serves as our bellwether. As Tony unravels in the search for his family's kidnappers, we watch Edward's torment as Susan drifts into the arms of another man (Armie Hammer). And as Susan reads Edward's book, she recalls elements of their ill-fated partnership that may have sparked the story's ferocity.
But is this long-simmering grudge real or imagined? Susan's life with her new husband is pointless and soul-crushing; her art is no longer inspiring. Is she lamenting her poor choices or accurately digesting a written rebuke from an ex-lover? Ford leaves the answer relatively ambiguous, though the book's vicious conclusion—and Susan's needling comments about Edward's lack of ambition—are probably not coincidental.
Much of the film's early moments—from proof that Susan's husband is cheating on her to a brief scene with Michael Sheen that reinforces the irrelevance of their cushy, sheltered existences—don't provide much substance. For a period, it seems that Ford might be giving into the desire to lament and lampoon his own safe, secure, potentially unsatisfying lifestyle. Luckily, it becomes clear before long that he's merely laying the foundation to inform Susan's response to Edward's book.
And that's important, because the book's story is by far the best part. There's a generous dollop of Funny Games in how the twisted kidnapper (a terrific Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his two friends torment Tony and his family by the side of a dark Texas road. Much like Tony, you want to believe that the three men don't mean any real harm, that their threats are hollow and their aim is just to frighten. Yet the longer it goes on—and Ford makes it last—the more both Tony and the audience realize how wishful that line of thinking really was.
As Tony, Gyllenhaal builds on his brilliant Oscar-nominated work in Nightcrawler, going from concerned father to terrified victim to vengeful-yet-meek obsessive with impassioned, deliberate aplomb. His bond with the vague Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) lets the unlikely duo share stilted, necessary moments of collaboration as they plot revenge. Both actors also fully understand their roles in a world of meticulous inauthenticity: everything about them falls into place neatly, good or bad, as it would in any well-written novel.
As compared to her starring turn in Arrival, Adams has far less to work with. Her role in the present-day scenes is mostly to establish when we're about to dip into the Book World and when we're in reality. But the flashback moments with Gyllenhaal, brief snippets of a burgeoning and then crumbling marriage, beautifully punctuate the horrifying sequences Edward has penned.
That's the magic of Nocturnal Animals: how well each part informs the rest. On their own, only the book's retelling would stand out—and Ford should take that as a cue to craft a true thriller someday. But all together, the disillusionment with an empty life and the remembrances of love's harsh disintegration fuel the finest third and lift the work of Gyllenhaal, Shannon, and Taylor-Johnson to new heights.