Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is living a privileged if empty life in Los Angeles when she receives a package from the ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), she hasn't had contact with in 19 years. A note from the man she knew as an aspiring writer asks her to read it before he arrives in the city, where he hopes to meet up with her. With her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) away on a business trip, Susan begins to read and is gripped yet disturbed by the novel dedicated to her, "Nocturnal Animals."
The saying goes 'revenge is a dish best served cold.' Writer/director Tom Ford's ("A Single Man") stylish adaptation of Austin Wright's novel, 'Tony and Susan,' adds elements to the story which sharpen its point, but his paring down of Susan's home life gives her part of the story an inertia which is only somewhat alleviated by flashbacks. Amy Adams' talent makes us understand Susan's gradual, gut wrenching realization, but in making Wright's themes more obvious, Ford has also given us less reason to care, his approach more satirical.
Take, for example, Susan's transformation from a frumpy housewife with children still at home into the rarified art dealer she is here, her makeup so harsh her appearance is borderline ghoulish. After a striking credits sequence, in which one woman more grossly obese than the next shimmies in a majorette outfit amidst sparklers and confetti, Ford pulls back to reveal this is Susan's art installation, its subjects face down and supine on raised white blocks around which patrons mingle. Even she categorizes this as junk, but it is what's keeping the Morrows afloat, Hutton's business in deep financial trouble.
That paper cut she gets opening the surprise parcel is a nice little tip off and as she begins to read, we're initially swept away in Edward's story too. Tony (also Gyllenhaal) is driving overnight on a dark Texas road with his red-headed wife Laura (Isla Fisher, "Keeping Up with the Joneses") and daughter India (Ellie Bamber, "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies") when a couple of cars begin to play chicken with him. When he accidentally taps one's bumper, he's forced off the road, accused of not stopping at the scene of an accident. The trio's leader, Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, going full psycho), plays both good and bad cops, offering to fix the family's flat tire, but also kidnapping Laura and India, leaving Tony to follow with henchman Lou (Karl Glusman, "The Neon Demon"). Instead of arriving at the police station in the fictitious town Ray mentioned, Tony, who thinks he's seen his Mercedes outside an old shanty, is dumped at the end of a dirt road.
Ford occasionally cuts to Susan reading, but instead of getting us into her head these brief scenes only serve as a reminder. A flashback to the NYC run-in that sparked Susan and Edward's romance defines their initial attraction. Another, in which Susan meets her mother Anne Sutton (Laura Linney, the very picture of Republican conservatism, another Ford touch) helps explain it while adding ironic foreshadowing. But it's Tony's story that drives the film and even that is lacking, more simplified black and white than Wright's grayer psychological struggle.
As to be expected from Ford, the film looks great. Besides the obvious bevy of red-headed women, keep your eyes peeled for other tie-ins between the real and the fictional, like the 70's green Pontiac GTO in the background between Susan and Edward during their breakup scene. But the film's biggest link between the two, Jake Gyllenhaal, fails to get us caught up in Tony's anguish. It is Michael Shannon as Lieutenant Bobby Andes, the Texas cop with literally nothing left to lose, who not only engenders the most sympathy here but whose performance is the most noteworthy. As a couple of Susan's bohemian art friends, Andrea Riseborough ("Birdman") and Michael Sheen are here too briefly, somehow clawing humanity out from under exaggerated makeup and costume.
"Nocturnal Animals" works as a thriller, but its pleasures are all of the surface kind.
Robin also gives "Nocturnal Animals" a B-.
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