No one can ever fault Tom Ford for being lazy. After an illustrious career in fashion design—which may very well be going on still, for all I know—he's decided to spend the latter half of his life in the relaxing profession of film director. He started in 2009 with the beautifully devastating/devastatingly beautiful A Single Man. Seven years later, he resurrects that aesthetic combination with Nocturnal Animals, although with a little more darkness on his mind. Someone needs a hug.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a gallerist whoe loveless marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer) gives her the wealth to display tacky junk to the unsuspecting Los Angeles mega-rich who see only fine art. She gets a manuscript in the mail from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring novelist who did little but aspire during their brief but passionate marriage. The book, also called Nocturnal Animals, features characters who startlingly resemble Susan and Edward, except it's set in West Texas (their childhood home) and features some pretty horrific events.
In the novel, Susan (Isla Fisher, an alternate universe Amy Adams if there ever was one) and Tony (Gyllenhaal) are on a car trip with their teenage daughter, India, when some bumpkins run them off the road. They kidnap Susan and India and then strand Tony in the desert. He wakes up the next morning, finds help in the form of local sheriff, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), only to discover his family has been raped and brutally murdered.
There is a lot going on in this movie. But despite its complicated plot and thriller conventions, I get the impression that Ford has more on his mind than merely telling a crackling mindfuck of a story. First and foremost is the director's priority of Extreme Beauty above all else. Adams in particular is placed in the slinkiest, most insanely flattering of dresses, recalling her ensembles from American Hustle, except somehow more sexy. The rest of the cast is uniformly gorgeous in their own way, whether they are Shannon's platonic ideal of a Texas lawman or Gyllenhaal's lushly broken husband. Ford sets up nearly every shot as if it were its own magazine spread, both in Los Angeles and the arid Texan scrub.
Less obvious is the point to all of the beautiful suffering. Ford adapts Austin Wright's novel, Tony and Susan, which may very well be just as grim and violent as the film. It nevertheless begs the question of, "Why this story?" I am not so clear on that and probably just need more time to process. But I do know the guy can make a fine-looking film. It certainly doesn't tell you what to think, which is to its credit. When it's all over, it's not even clear what is happening, which makes it hard to recommend as a satisfying work of fiction. Ford's aloof touch also makes it tough even to connect to the characters emotionally. It's a film full of emotions without being particularly emotional.
Nocturnal Animals is brutality painted with a luster you aren't guaranteed to find most other places. How much you're into beauty for its own sake will determine your interest in the movie.