The first rule of taut psychological thriller club is you don't talk about taut psychological thriller club. Or, well, you can talk about it, but just don't spoil anything.
I will hereby defy those rules to reveal that the big spoiler of Nocturnal Animals — the second film from former fashion designer Tom Ford — is…that there is no big spoiler in Nocturnal Animals. This is not to say the film holds no surprises. It takes more than one turn that I probably wouldn't have expected. What it doesn't have is one of those great big O. Henry-style reveals — like The Crying Game or The Sixth Sense or, of course, Fight Club — that blows one's brain circuits and forces you to rethink everything you just watched. Which is too bad, because that might have allowed this meandering mess of a film to wrap up with something roughly approximating a point.
Nocturnal Animals is essentially two films, one contained within the other like a Russian nesting doll. In the primary narrative, Amy Adams portrays Susan, the owner of a cold, elite art gallery who lives a cold, decadent life in a cold, luxurious Los Angeles apartment while stuck in a cold, loveless marriage. One day she receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward, with whom she has not spoken in nearly 20 years. It's a novel, soon to be published, and it's dedicated to her.
As Susan begins to read through the pages, the plot of Edward's novel forms the second narrative, one which takes up most of Nocturnal Animals' running time. In the story, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a good-hearted father who sets off on a road trip across desolate West Texas with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). In the film's most accomplished and exhilarating scene, the family is run off the road and psychologically tortured by a trio of sadistic rednecks, who abduct both of the women. The story follows as Tony joins forces with a gruff local lawman, played by the always excellent Michael Shannon, to track down the kidnappers and exact vengeance.
This story within a story might have been worth making on its own. It wouldn't have been a good film, mind you, but it's just the sort of pulpy guilty pleasure one might watch late at night on Cinemax, when you just want to turn off your brain for a spell. Unfortunately, whatever power this story might have on its own is sapped both by the fact that, within the film's own logic, none of it "really" happened, and also by Ford's clinical treatment of it as a meta-narrative.
The Texas story, you see, is interspersed with flashbacks to Susan's relationship with Edward, also played by Gyllenhaal. And, of course, Adams bears a resemblance to Fisher, and Bamber is practically a clone of India Menuez, an actress we see in a brief scene as Susan's real daughter. We learn through the flashbacks that Susan left and betrayed Edward, as the Texas story's beats parallel those in the couple's life. When Tony is destroyed and emasculated, Edward is destroyed and emasculated. And when Tony sets out for revenge, well, perhaps Edward might also get the last laugh, after all.
All of this might have been an interesting film school exercise, but the final product utterly flunks the test. Stylishly shot and competently acted, the film nonetheless completely disappears up its own butt (and speaking of butts, shots of pasty white naked ones also appear to be running theme here, for reasons impossible to discern). There's nothing to spoil, because there was nothing fresh to begin with.
2 out of 5 stars
Rated R. Directed by Tom Ford.
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon.
Opens Nov. 23.