NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, fashion-designer-turned-director Tom Ford’s second film (and his first since 2009’s A Single Man) looks great, and the story is intriguing and disturbing. But the movie’s a downer, and it has the misfortune of showing up in theaters exactly when we really don’t need a downer—especially one about the emotional scars of rich, well-dressed white people.
Ford’s a natural filmmaker, and with Hitchcockian ease, he pulls you into the plight of fancy-pants Los Angeles gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), who receives a pre-publication copy of a novel written by the ex-husband she hasn’t seen in almost 20 years. With her husband out of town, she digs into it, and so do we: It follows a teacher (Jake Gyllenhaal) who embarks on a Texas road trip with his wife and teenaged daughter. They get waylaid on the interstate by a group of redneck droogs, with tragic consequences. As Susan reads, we not only see the novel’s story unfold, but also witness scenes from her relationship with its author (also played by Gyllenhaal).
Adams and Gyllenhaal are two of the most reliable, discerning actors working today. Adams is fresh off her triumph in Arrival, Gyllenhaal has cornered the market on hunky, brooding grief, and Michael Shannon shows up to effortlessly steal a few scenes as a chain-smoking detective. Toss in Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, and Jena Malone, and it almost feels like one of those star-studded Miramax productions from back in the day, where you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting Philip Seymour Hoffman or Gwyneth Paltrow.
But while Ford’s aesthetic and ambition mark him as a genuine auteur, the existentialist shellac he slathers over everything here ends up sealing any emotional impact beneath it. Maybe it’s just bad timing, but Nocturnal Animals ends up mirroring the emptiness and decadence it means to expose.