It has been a long seven-year wait for fashion-designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford to return behind the camerahis last picture, 2009's "A Single Man
," was a stirring, stylish debutbut it is very clear from the formidably bravura results he was not merely resting on his laurels. An American mosaic charred in disillusionment and regret, "Nocturnal Animals" is mysterious, disturbing, and altogether devastating. It's also not quite like anything that has come before it. To be sure, David Lynch and the late, great Robert Altman would be exceptionally proud, but Ford's complex corkscrew of shifting narratives and parallel subtexts is very much its own entityplayfully experimental in form, endlessly provocative in content, and visually ravishing to behold. Unshakable as much for what isn't said as for what is, "Nocturnal Animals" hauntingly burrows its way into one's inner recesses, electrifying nerve endings and plaguing the heart. In a word, it's extraordinary.
Opening-credits imagery of nude obese females jumping joyfully around in marching band regalia, swinging sparklers with care-free abandon, is startling in its take-me-or-leave-me bluntness. Intermingling modern humanity's views on beauty and grotesquery into powerful, strikingly composed frames, the film immediately forces viewers, polluted by society's deeply ingrained physical ideals, to confront their own preconceptions and prejudices. As it turns out, this footage and these women are part of high-end gallery owner Susan Morrow's (Amy Adams) new art installation exhibit. Increasingly disenchanted by the life she has found herself in, Susan returns to the sharp-edged, hyper-modern Hollywood mansion she shares with terminally aloof husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). Surrounded by sleek sculptures and imposing paintings and photographyin one, a man standing in a field turns his head, awaiting the death blow from another's rifleshe has never felt emptier. Does she have it all, or just a whole lot of expensive stuff that doesn't mean much?
When Susan receives the manuscript of ex-husband Edward Sheffield's (Jake Gyllenhaal) upcoming novel, titled "Nocturnal Animals," she is surprised to learn the book is dedicated to her. Unable to keep her mind from lingering on what might have been had she supported Edward's aspirations and not done irreparable damage to their marriage, Susan becomes engulfed in the suspenseful literary tale before her. In it, a road-tripping familyhusband Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal, again), wife Laura (Isla Fisher), and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber)are accosted by three creeps (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo) on a lonesome West Texas highway. Susan does not initially connect the thematic similarities between Edward's harrowing fiction and her alienating reality, but the further she reads on, the more the symbolically loaded implications of the story begin to invade and inform her present.
Based on the 1993 novel "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright, "Nocturnal Animals" deepens in menacing, mournful and miraculous ways the further it proceeds and the longer one ponders it in hindsight. Every last image captured by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's (2014's "Godzilla
") lens is beyond sumptuous, frame-worthy snapshots in delicate, evocative motion. A dazzling aesthetic sheen would be for naught, however, without writer-director Tom Ford's sublime prowess and his ensemble's intensely committed performances, each one at the service of a singularly audacious cinematic vision. Juxtaposing Susan's quiet, anguished ennui with Tom's unimaginably terrifying ordeal, the narrative mirrors the seamless fluidity of water cascading from a basin. Wavering between the present, the past, and alternating veils of existence, the film empathetically observes its characters' shifting perceptions while cynically, yet truthfully, refusing to let them off the hook.
In the first timeline, Amy Adams (2016's "Arrival
") is shattering as Susan, a woman who, no matter how hard she tried to fight it, has turned into her mother (Laura Linney, a ruthless one-scene standout). Having chosen material possessions and the security of a dashing, distant, unfaithful husband over modest means and true love, she looks at what she has procured and none of it means anything to her. Adding insult to injury: even after selling her soul, she and Hutton are secretly facing financial hard times, the survival of their current lifestyle hinging upon each new business deal he makes. From optimistic young college student to the more cynical, hardened person she has become as she moves toward middle age, Adams breathes an aching world of living into Susan. That she shares such an impassioned chemistry with Jake Gyllenhaal (2015's "Southpaw
"), seen primarily in flashbacks as Edward, only causes the foreknowledge of their failed marriage to sting tenfold. It is clear what she stands to loseso clear, in fact, that she realizes it herself even as she goes through with setting fire to their relationship.
Meanwhile, in Edward's novel, Gyllenhaal portrays Tony, a fictional character who becomes every bit as real as Susan. The precarious circumstance thrust upon him and his family while stranded on a remote nighttime road is the stuff of nightmares, heading for them like a freight train without brakes. Facing such a clear, immediate danger, he is overcome with a sense of fear and helplessness that leaves him wondering if he could have done something more. Gyllenhaal brings a raw sorrow to Tony, his rage bubbling just out of sight. As the straight-shooting, chain-smoking Detective Bobby Andes, Michael Shannon (2015's "Freeheld
") achieves a quietly intense pathos, his vividly drawn role given added weight when one discovers the reasons behind his radical search for justice. Sustained razor-wire tension enters this vignette early on, bleeding into Susan's consciousness. In turn, a scene where she glimpses something entirely unexpected on colleague Sage's (Jena Malone) baby surveillance camera is enough to send a heart-stilling chill down one's body.
In "Nocturnal Animals," Susan and Tony are living very different personal hells while asking themselves the same age-old question: how might their livesand those of their loved oneshave been changed were they to have done things differently? Thoughts such as this can eat a person up inside. What's done is done. Still, as flawed, fallible creatures, we return to the same nagging reflection: "If only..." Backed by Abel Korzeniowski's (2013's "Escape from Tomorrow
") rhapsodically composed score, the final minutes, in their stunning stillness and uncompromised suggestion, are crushing. Susan has made mistakes in her life, grave errors in judgment which she hopes, if at all possible, she can set right. Sleekly dressed but wiping away her lipstick, she is finally ready to lay her heart on the line for the chance to make amends and maybe, possibly, something more. Tom Ford has quite a different plan for her, and his unforgettable closing shot, like the picture's cumulative impact, is impossible to sever. Equivalent to the intimate sweep and subtly rattling emotional power of Michelangelo Antonioni's towering "L'Avventura," "Nocturnal Animals" is bold and breathtaking, a profound human tragedy with a devil's wink.