Horrific crimes are committed in the suspense thriller “Nocturnal Animals,” harms that are both concrete and abstract. Most involve one person, perhaps a husband or a wife, planning to take another’s life. Some arise in affluent urban surroundings that are minimalist, sterile and abstract. Others erupt in a barely inhabitable wasteland that looks both prehistoric and post-apocalyptic.
Trying to weigh this spellbinding film’s multi-faceted carnage is a mesmerizing experience that requires as much soul-searching as detective work. The second feature by fashion designer Tom Ford is an ambitious, at times ambiguous mystery/character study that sets out to redefine the genre.
Twining three stories together, the film stars Amy Adams as Susan, a socialite Los Angeles gallery owner whose gala openings mask a life of upscale isolation and depression. We follow her in extended flashbacks to the beginnings of her relationship with her sensitive first husband, Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. And we watch her enter otherworldly territory as she reads a novel manuscript Edward sends her nearly 20 years after she left him for her handsome, distant second husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer).
Edward’s story seems dangerous from the start; a paper cut slices Susan’s finger open before she can unwrap it. When Hutton is away for the weekend, she begins reading, and Ford’s narrative frames a film within the film as violent and depraved as any Cormac McCarthy epic. The novel, dedicated to Susan, traces the fortunes of Tony (Gyllenhaal, doing double duty in a full beard) and Laura (Isla Fisher, who is nearly Adams’ ginger-haired twin). In Susan’s point of view, the fictional couple closely resemble her ex and herself, just as their teenager India (Ellie Bamber) parallels Samantha (India Menuez), her daughter with Hutton.
Driving along the wilds of west Texas on a deserted, unlit highway, the family is forced into a car accident and a nightmare world with no escape. Aaron Taylor-Johnson does a scene-stealing, transformative performance as Ray, the leader of the derelict joyriders with vicious plans for their victims. A hulking police detective with a sideline in abuses of power (perfectly cast Michael Shannon) sets out with Tony to confront the attackers.
Conventional films can be restrictive in their linear story lines. Ford takes a strikingly different approach. Is Edward’s hard-hitting novel a metaphor of heartbreak? The writer’s road rage fantasia about their marriage’s collapse? An act of cruel literary revenge against her because “I did something horrible to him”? Flashbacks to their troubled liaison eventually reveal her actions.
Ford’s fabled sense of design serves him well. Even when Tony is desperately searching for help in a desolate desert dawn, the look is noticeably well-composed. With beautiful cinematography and saturated colors lush enough to luxuriate in, he has made a visually stunning feature. Susan’s gallery displays bizarre modern art that she calls “junk,” an opinion Ford clearly shares. Composer Abel Korzeniowski’s orchestral score gives the picture a ‘40s feel, with echoes of the great noir detective pictures of the era.
Gyllenhaal defines his doppelganger characters distinctly, showing clearly different qualities in men Susan considers almost identical. Adams plays her role in three different times of life, as three individuals. In her latest phase, she largely reflects in silence on the events of the novel and her memories, her stillness giving Susan levels of sympathy, regret and vulnerability beyond the narrative.
Ford ends the film with a haunting image that delivers the moral to the story. “When you love someone,” Edward says, “you have to be careful with it. You might never get it again.” Open to various interpretations, “Nocturnal Animals” strikes me as a surreal meditation on love, jealousy, identity and reality. Some plot details recall other recent curveball crime stories, intentionally difficult puzzles like David Fincher’s “Gone Girl” and Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler.” They advise us to forget about slashers with axes, because true horror is in other people.
Rated: R for violence, menace, graphic nudity and profanity. Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon. Director: Tom Ford. Running time: 116 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 12, Flicks, Majestic 18.