The initial images in Nocturnal Animals are shocking: Morbidly obese female strippers gyrate in slow motion on a saturated stage to blaring music. From this first disconcerting moment, the film never lets up, keeping the audience off-kilter throughout a wild, multi-faceted telling of a tragic tale.
The nude women are a part of an exhibition by Susan (Amy Adams), a successful and absolutely unfulfilled artist living in Los Angeles with her philandering and gorgeous husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer). The story’s tension, however, lies with her ex, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who sends her a book he’s written with the same name as the film.
From here, it’s a story within a story that is in and of itself no longer a shocking thing to do in cinema. What is different about Tom Ford’s newest film–and works to Nocturnal Animals’ detriment–is that the depiction of the book is far more interesting than anything that happens “in real life.” It’s a lopsided exchange that continues all the way to the conclusion.
In a Lynchian twist, the main character in the novel is “played” by Gyllenhaal as well, and it tells the horrific story of Tony, his wife Laura (Isla Fisher), and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) on one fateful night and beyond. When this family comes into contact with the menacingly insane Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and friends on a deserted West Texas highway, things go south quickly. The extended scene of this encounter would make for the most compelling short film of all time if separated from the whole.
While Tony deals with the aftermath of that horrific incident, we see Susan reacting to every page. For her, this story is a comment on their failed marriage and the pain she caused Edward while leaving him. A third time period comes into play from the retelling of their initial romance and ultimate dissolution. Most of these scenes are forgettable, save for one with Susan’s mother (Laura Linney) as a sublime big-hair Dallas socialite.
The environs of far West Texas are played against gaudy and superficial Los Angeles perfectly. Lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) is the perfect character for that rough and rugged place and matches well with Ray’s country craziness. Similarly, the art-world snob played by Jena Malone encapsulates much about our preening urban centers.
Nocturnal Animals is first and foremost a story about getting what you’ve always wanted and being achingly empty inside because of it. Adams elegantly staggers through her scenes, emitting a potent cocktail of beauty and regret. Her life is perfect and perfectly hollow. The action, revenge, and vitality of the novel’s storyline provide a stark contrast to that in which characters ache and hurt but are anything but dead inside. Neither scenario provides a grounding for an existence anyone would willfully choose, but by blending the two, Nocturnal Animals creates a stunning exploration of life and the choices that shape it.
Nocturnal Animals opens on November 23, 2016.