Nocturnal Animals, B-
Rated R, 116 minutes
Just a fair warning about the stylish new Tom Ford thriller "Nocturnal Animals": the first 5 minutes is grotesquely shocking and bizarre and probably unnecessary, likely provoking some walk outs. Don't fear though, the shock is only temporary before it settles into a well-acted, dark though occasionally heavy-handed psychological thriller.
A successful Los Angeles art-gallery owner named Susan (Amy Adams) has an idyllic life that is marred by the constant traveling of her handsome but philandering second husband (Armie Hammer). While he is away, she is shaken by the arrival of a manuscript written by her first husband named Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she has not seen in years. The manuscript tells the story of a teacher (also played by Gyllenhaal) who finds a trip with his family turning into a nightmare. As Susan reads the book, it forces her to examine her past and confront some dark truths.
Directed and written by famed designer and now filmmaker Ford (whose first film was the superbly acted 2009 drama "A Single Man"), based on the novel "Tony and Susan" by Austin Wright, "Nocturnal Animals" is a tense story-within-a-story neo-noir psychological thriller with a handful of compelling moments from its talented cast. It works best when Ford's heavy hand doesn't try to get in the way of the natural flow of the storyline and take note: the fictional story that Adams reads is far more interesting than her real life, though perhaps that is the point.
Speaking of which, the film's first aforementioned icky moments seem to stick out like a sore thumb, adding little texture to a film that doesn't really need it, making it feel more like unnecessary shock value. Playing both the ex and his fictional literary character, Gyllenhaal is particularly gritty as the man who comes alive through his story, gaining considerable strength from the loss of things he loves - his family (in the fictional story) and his marriage (in real life). Those tense scenes in the first act as he and his family are terrorized on the side of the road make for an extremely uneasy ride.
Adams is good too, but her character is the more passive, especially as the fictional story unfolds; it's here where the more interesting characters lie, including Michael Shannon's cynical detective and Aaron Taylor-Johnson's larger-than-life lowlife, both of whom manage to steal scenes from Gyllenhaal's intensity. Laura Linney delivers one of the year's most delectable cameos as Susan's big-haired Texas mother who's ultimately right when she says "all girls end up like their mother, whether they want to be or not."
Ford handles the flashbacks and the weaving of fiction and real life decently, though "Nocturnal Animals" reeks with metaphors and symbolism that are distractions from it delivering truly enjoyable entertainment (everything from the costumes to the sets to the melodramatic music all bear Ford's likely touch); on a good note, the handsome photography from Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ("The Avengers") adds some nice, dark touches to the movie.
In spite of its flaws, "Nocturnal Animals" is serviceable entertainment and a solid, tense escape from real life. Make it through those first few squeamish 5 minutes and you'll be home free.