"Enjoy the absurdity of our world," advises Michael Sheen as a gay socialite in a glittering lavender blazer. "Our world is a lot less painful than the real world." He's a guest at a party thrown by gallery curator Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), and he's just given us Nocturnal Animals in a nutshell.
Fashion mogul Tom Ford's second foray into filmmaking doesn't merely fulfill the promise of 2009's A Single Man. It shatters expectations, establishing the writer-director as an artist on par with Alfred Hitchcock, Paulo Sorrentino or David Lynch — and, at various points, he pays stylistic homage to each. It's the most aesthetically audacious, thematically visceral movie you'll see this year.
The world of which Sheen speaks is that of contemporary Los Angeles privilege. Susan is married to a handsome power broker (Armie Hammer) who she knows is unfaithful and sinking in financial quicksand. She lives in a modernist steel mansion and has just overseen the opening of an outrageous installation in which obese middle-aged women recline on pedestals, naked but for drum-majorette accessories.
Susan feels guilty for contributing to our "junk culture." For abandoning her artistic ambitions. For having everything yet not being happy. And for a dark secret that's the reason for everything to come.
A package arrives in the morning mail. Inside she finds the manuscript of a novel written by her ex, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). It's titled Nocturnal Animals, an allusion to a nickname Edward gave Susan because of her insomnia. With her husband away on business and the help dismissed for the weekend, the scarlet-haired woman slips on a pair of chic black glasses and settles in for what proves a most unsettling read.
Edward's novel tells the terrifying story of a West Texas teacher named Tony who loads his scarlet-haired wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) into his vintage Benz for a road trip. That night, within moments of the girl losing her cell signal, the family is run off the road by a gang of rednecks led by a seriously creepy sociopath named Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). What happens next ranks with the most pulse-pounding sequences in cinematic history. Susan is simultaneously hypnotized and horrified. She has a scarlet-haired daughter, too.
Masterfully edited, the movie's LA and Texas scenes are eerily intercut so as to echo one another. Ford's designer eye serves him well, contrasting the colors and textures of the two worlds — one antiseptic, the other wild, almost primeval. And what a simple but brilliant idea it is to have Susan visualize Tony as Edward.
Gyllenhaal is highly convincing in both roles, as a wronged lover glimpsed in flashback and as a family man who crosses moral lines he never imagined he could in search of revenge. Revenge, in fact, takes a variety of forms in the film. A painting consisting solely of the word in bold black letters hangs in Susan's gallery. And, as becomes clearer with each page, Edward's novel is itself a long-planned form of payback.
Just when you think Nocturnal Animals couldn't get any better, Michael Shannon materializes in Edward's tale as Texas lawman Bobby Andes ("I look into things around here."). Dying of lung cancer, he doesn't have time for niceties such as due process. Like a chain-smoking Virgil showing Dante around the circles of hell, Andes takes the devastated stranger under his wing, explains how the world works in his godforsaken neck of the woods and, when the time comes, puts a gun in Tony's hand. If you want suspense, desert-dry dialogue, exquisite visuals and a time bomb of a plot, you're in luck. They're just Ford's style.