The opening credits of “Nocturnal Animals”, featuring more than a few women who are, uh, generously proportioned and undressed, might well be exploitative, but being that it is quickly revealed as part of a Los Angeles art show ambiguous in nature immediately connects it to the ancient question that Tom Ford’s film asks – “What does art mean?” Ford, frankly, does not have an answer any more compelling or original than anything else that has come down the cinematic pike, though I do not mean to suggest the movie is abominable or inert. For all its fairly predictable plotting and paper thin observations about, you know, life, “Nocturnal Animals” still manages myriad moments of individual beauty, like a Texas lawman introduced smoking beneath a Budget Motel sign. It’s the kind of shot that sensorily stops you and then leaves you wondering why you got stopped, like you’re perusing an art gallery. And even if the film sometimes feels like an art gallery, with paintings hung from so many walls and sculptures standing at attention on so many floors, this is still a movie, and at the movies no image is more powerful than the human face. And Ford has found in Amy Adams an unlikely subject. I mean, who would have thought ten years ago that the bubbly Amy Adams of “Junebug” would one day approximate the ghostly spirit of Monica Vitti?
Adams is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), curator of the opening art show, who wanders through a crowd of bohemians so ludicrous (Andrea Riseborough looks like she’s the star of a retro if swanky alt girl grunge video) you’ll be forgiven for thinking you’ve accidentally wandered into a showing of “Zoolander 2”, a movie Susan would no doubt give zero stars. In Susan’s disinterested behavior, another ancient idea emerges - that is, sumptuousness always equates with soullessness. But then, this is Tom Ford and oh my what sumptuousness! Indeed, Adams’s hairdo is the best at the movies this year, a sort of Veronica Lake à la mode, swept to one side with one eye cloaked behind those blood red bangs, like her visage is a Half Moon partly shrouded by hair. I do not mean to reduce Adams, mind you, to wardrobe. No, her fashion meticulousness is key to the character’s chilly air. She maintains a surface so still you sometimes suspect she might break in half. This does not betray a roiling sea below, however, but rather clues us into the nothingness at her core. She’s like a left coast version of the girl Woody Allen meets at the art gallery in “Play It Again, Sam.”
So, her soul will have to be stirred, and it is when a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), a struggling, romantic writer, arrives in the mail. Their past relationship is glimpsed in flashbacks written in the kind of faux-soulful bilge that often plagues early-20s kind of work, where questions of paying fealty to The Man or staying true to your art reign supreme. Eventually Susan breaks Edward’s heart by leaving him for a handsome man named Hutton (Armie Hamer), though their marital bust up is tied just as much, as a vicious, slyly comic cameo by Laura Linney as Susan’s mom evinces, to an inherent weakness in Edward. It’s the old nice guy affliction, you might say, that he will simply never be able to run with the bulls.
As Susan dives into her ex’s manuscript, however, often reading in darkened rooms with nary a light, seeming to suggest she really does need those ginormous black frames she sometimes rocks, a story within a story emerges, as she envisions the novel unfolding in her head, casting Edward in the part of the book's protagonist’s, Tony Hastings, who is driving through the west Texas night with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). They run afoul of some southern roughnecks, captained by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who run the family off the road, taunt and tease them and then abscond with Tony’s two loved ones, leaving him behind, and causing him to enlist the aid of a local lawman, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).
For all the tension Ford manages to create in little bursts here and there, and for effective as Gyllenhaal can be at coming across pitifully helpless, this story never quite flies, feeling like a grisly, washed out, cheaply budgeted midnight thriller all done up to play for more hoity toity crowds of movie awards seasons rather than the insomniacs looking for something to watch at 2 AM. Why else would the ringleader look less like the hitchhiker in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” than a GQ model displaced from Hollywood to the rural prairie? What’s worse, because it quickly becomes clear that the story’s entire purpose is for Edward to communicate with Susan by page, transforming the guilt he felt for not being strong enough to be her man into some sort of grindhouse paperback, the characters within the story feel inconsequential, figments of Susan and Edward’s imagination.
All, that is, except for Bobby Andes, who, against all the odds, the ever-dexterous Shannon manages to outfit with real individuality, communicated in eyes that observe Tony with more judgment than suspicion, and a few grunts and grimaces that quietly evoke his character’s backstory before it even emerges. And when the backstory does come to light, Shannon plays it not with any kind of melancholy but a surly craving to see matters of earthly justice through before it’s too late. He’s ticked off, but dedicated. It’s really quite wonderful, this performance, this character, almost threatening to eat “Nocturnal Animals” not whole like an animal on a National Geographic special, but like someone stealing bites at a formal dinner.
Alas, Bobby Andes must disappear so that Tony’s story can come full circle, and so, in turn, can Edward’s. The manuscript ends on a note of ambiguity, and so, in a sense, does the movie itself. Not in terms of narrative, really, which builds to a point “you can see coming”, with vengeance consumed, but with the concluding emotions of Susan. The final sequence in which she sits at a swank restaurant, sipping at her lavishly lit cocktail, is like a work of art hung in a museum, one which pointedly leaves us to wonder her exact state of mind, which Adams pointedly refuses to betray, as if she will remain there for an eternity, content to let us wonder.