Given the challenge that most directors have making a single film, writer-director Tom Ford‘s sophomore effort, “Nocturnal Animals,” is all the more impressive for being essentially two movies in one. One of those films is a “sad people in nice houses” tale you might expect from the couturier-turned-filmmaker behind “A Single Man,” but the other one is the kind of down-and-dirty West Texas revenge thriller that calls to mind Sam Peckinpah.
“Nocturnal Animals” jumps between the “reality” of its own story and a novel that one of the characters is reading, and that’s a tricky leap to accomplish; look no further than another Venice entry, Wim Wenders‘s tedious “Les Beaux Jours d’Aranjuez,” for an example of how not to jump back and forth cinematically between a book and its author.
Amy Adams, already so impressive at this year’s Venice Film Festival with “Arrival,” plays a significantly different kind of character here: Susan is a successful L.A. gallery curator, but her neutral stare and smoky eye shadow speak volumes about her unhappiness. Her distant, withholding husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is jetting off to New York on another attempt to save his failing business, leaving Susan alone in their glass-box house (complete with a Koons in the back yard) to read a galley of “Nocturnal Animals,” the first novel by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who never remarried and who has dedicated the book to her.
The novel features Tony (also Gyllenhaal), whose family drive from Dallas to Marfa takes a very wrong turn when he encounters some scary rednecks (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) on a deserted highway who kidnap Tony’s wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber, “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”).
Reading Edward’s book brings the weaknesses of Susan’s current marriage into sharp relief, and it also summons memories of her relationship with Edward and where it all went wrong. Rather than support his efforts to write, Susan judged him, in the same way that she judged herself, deciding that she didn’t have the emotional strength to be an artist and opting instead to curate.
Ford (adapting the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright) spins all these plates with grace, leaving us to decide for ourselves how much, if at all, Susan should see Edward’s novel as an allegorical comment on their relationship. Working again with editor Joan Sobel, the director makes the Texas segments almost unbearably suspenseful and agonizing.
Those moments contrast with the longueur of Susan’s day-to-day L.A. life, and all the departments work overtime to differentiate the film’s two narrative threads, from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (“The Avengers”) to composer Abel Korzeniowski, whose eclectic score runs the gamut from Bernard Herrmann-inspired lush menace to a sequence scored with nothing but the sound of a single heartbeat.
The performances here are consistently superb, from Adams and Gyllenhaal (playing two very different roles) to Michael Shannon (as a Texas lawman), Laura Linney (getting an unforgettable scene as Susan’s mother, a monstrous Manhattan society matron) and Karl Glusman (“Love,” “The Neon Demon”) as one of the kidnappers. The real standout is Taylor-Johnson, so effectively creepy as the ringleader of the novel’s miscreants. He’s been an effective enough superhero in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and the “Kick-Ass” films — and thoroughly vapid in “Godzilla” — but his unsettlingly charismatic turn here heralds a career turning point.
The somewhat enigmatic ending of the film annoyed some of the people around me at the press screening — and I confess I’ll probably need to sit with it for a while to fully understand what Ford was going for with it — but “Nocturnal Animals” packs a real punch and confirms that “A Single Man” was no fluke.