Yves Saint Laurent collides with Cormac McCarthy in Nocturnal Animals, a domestic melodrama/thriller that proceeds along two parallel tracks to a dead end. The second feature by fashionista-filmmaker Tom Ford boasts some gripping scenes and a few stabs at satire, but ultimately offers little beyond its assured sense of style.
Ford — who wrote, produced, and directed — began with Austin Wright's Tony and Susan, a novel in which one of the characters is a novelist. Yet the result, despite a few narrative sleights-of-hand, isn't exactly meta-fiction. The movie is less about storytelling than character, and turns on two familiar (and now hackneyed) types from mid-20th-century psychological drama: the cold woman and the weak man.
The woman is Susan (Amy Adams), introduced at her upscale L.A. art gallery. Her new show involves video of vastly obese women who dance naked in a parody of stripper chic. Ford presents the performance video as a critique of contemporary art-world sensationalism, also represented by a grisly Damien Hirst piece.
Brazenly, the script has the disillusioned Susan call the art she peddles "junk," and enlists one of her pals (Michael Sheen) to pronounce on "the absurdity of our world."
Yet Ford has long worked in an industry that objectifies women, and the movie later displays several more shapely female nudes, without apparent irony. And his use of violence, while not especially gory, constitutes a Hirst-like bid for shocked attention.
Susan is in a disintegrating marriage to Hutton (Armie Hammer), a GQ-perfect financier whose business is also collapsing. They live in one of those prison-modernist L.A. houses that the director loves. (Or hates; it's unclear). Susan and Hutton's home is the same sort of sterile box that confined the protagonist of Ford's A Single Man, which at least had the excuse of being set in 1962.
Two decades before the story begins, Susan was briefly married to Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer, but dumped him because his career wasn't blossoming. Now Edward has written a novel about a family that's menaced on a lonely west Texas highway. The scenario is clearly a metaphor for his lost marriage, but also the raw material for a hard-boiled flick of Coen Brothers-style cruelty.
In that movie, which unspools as Susan reads the book, Gyllenhaal plays Tony, who can't protect his wife and teenage daughter (Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber) from three backwoods marauders. These scenes are impressively visceral, and shot in a jumpy style quite unlike A Single Man or the rest of this film.
Later, Tony allies with a world-weary Texas cop, a role that gives Michael Shannon a chance to out-drawl Hell or High Water's Jeff Bridges and No Country for Old Men's Tommy Lee Jones. Shannon's performance, along with Laura Linney's cameo as Susan's freeze-dried mother, is much more interesting than Adams and Gyllenhaal's high seriousness.
Swathed in Abel Korzeniowski's neo-noir score, Nocturnal Animals aspires to consummate solemnity. This is a movie that can get portentous about a paper cut, which makes its occasional digs at L.A.'s art-and-fashion whirl feel more leaden than they should be. But then it's hard to have fun when all is lost.
Dressing your movie well may be the best revenge, and every person, place and thing in Ford's fantasy of severity is fastidiously positioned and impeccably lighted. This makes the film a pleasure to watch, yet undercuts its despair. Even on the darkest of paths, Nocturnal Animals preens as if it's on a fashion-show catwalk.