By Elisa Rossi
Joan Didion wrote that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Sometimes, though, we tell stories to kill, to stick a stiletto in and watch the blood drain. That’s the moral of “Nocturnal Animals,” a harsh cautionary tale about love, vengeance and the divide between life and art, that shadowy space in which real people are turned into fictional characters and old hurts made into narrative grist. Here, an unhappy girlfriend becomes a happy wife, a betrayed man becomes a victim all over again, and assorted murderers take turns bringing the pain.
In its broadest outlines, “Nocturnal Animals” is about art — its creation, reception and power. Art and power are something that Susan (Amy Adams), who runs a Los Angeles art gallery, understands. They’ve given her cultural capital and money (there’s a Jeff Koons statue next to her pool), yet she isn’t an artist. That distinction belongs to her ex-husband, Edward, a writer who soon after the movie opens sends Susan his latest, “Nocturnal Animals,” a novel that he’s dedicated to her. She’s intrigued — the dedication is a seduction — and, after some domestic melodrama with her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), she settles in to read Edward’s novel.
Once she starts reading, the movie cuts to the story in the novel. It opens with Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), packing up the family’s old Mercedes for a trip to Marfa, Tex. Before long, he, his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and their teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), are driving in the pitch-black West Texas evening, seemingly alone on a two-lane highway. Their quiet coziness is shattered by a gang of men, who roar out of the dark like a nightmare. Led by a smiling sadist, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), they beat Tony and snatch Laura and India — violence that shakes the novel and its reader. Susan is so upset that she stops reading, shifting the point of view back to her.
And so it goes: Susan reads, Tony bleeds. And just as his story opens up each time she reads the novel, her story opens when she lays it aside. One of those beautiful sufferers so beloved by movies, Susan lives in a palatial Modernist mausoleum — all concrete, glass and bustling help — set high above Los Angeles and its little people. There’s trouble in paradise: Hutton is unfaithful, distant and on a steep financial downslide. Susan tries to reach out to him, but it’s impossible, so she keeps turning to the novel instead, escaping in its violence, tension and suspense.
Working from his own adaptation of Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” the director Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) handles the transitions between Susan’s story and Tony’s smoothly. (His editor is Joan Sobel.) Some of the shifts are fairly blunt, as Mr. Ford abruptly cuts back and forth between the two stories. Over time, though, as Tony’s situation becomes increasingly dire, Susan’s responses grow more emotionally fraught. Like any invested reader (or moviegoer), she begins to care about this fictional character, to worry and weep. Edward may be a fine writer, but a series of flashbacks to Susan’s life with him suggests another reason for her tears: Tony looks like Edward.
That’s how fiction works, of course — it turns readers into casting directors (and production designers), which is why fans can become irate when a screen adaptation doesn’t look like the book that played in their heads. Susan has effectively cast her former husband as the star of his brutal novel and personalized the story even further with some other choices. Tony’s wife looks like Susan; his daughter resembles her daughter (India Menuez). Other touches bind the stories even tighter, including camera angles and body positions, the crosses that Susan and Laura each wear and several flashes of bright green that connect the villain in one story to the villain in the other.
With its doubles and tricky turns, “Nocturnal Animals” resembles a hall of mirrors, one doomed to shatter. There are moments of low-key pleasure in this fun house, especially in the scenes of Susan’s world, an absurd, at times amusing cartoon filled with lavish excesses, baroque shocks (a Damien Hirst outrage) and exotic creatures (Jena Malone, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough) who are as unreal as aliens or the boldfaced names in a Vogue layout. Mr. Ford seems entirely at ease in this world, which has all the life of a beautifully appointed sarcophagus and suggests that part of Susan died long ago. Edward’s novel shocks her back to life, only to destroy her.
There’s much to admire in “Nocturnal Animals,” including Mr. Ford’s ambition, but too often it feels like the work of an observant student. He’s adept at creating different realisms and textures for each story line, variations that add layers of meaning. Susan’s world, for instance, comes across as far more artificial than Tony’s does, with its cruelties, dust and blood. She looks as if she stepped out of a Pedro Almodóvar fantasia, while Tony ends up clawing through a Jim Thompson pulp novel (one featuring a great Michael Shannon). That’s a tough combination to pull off, especially without the critical distance, deep feeling and laughter that turn an ordinary melodrama into an Almodóvar.
“Nocturnal Animals” is rated R (under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian) for visceral violence. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes.
Director Tom Ford Writer Tom Ford Stars Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher Rating R Running Time 1h 57m Genres Drama, Thriller.