In “Nocturnal Animals,” Amy Adams plays Susan, an art gallery owner in Los Angeles trapped in a loveless marriage with a businessman (Armie Hammer) who has checked out emotionally: He sips iced coffee for breakfast and barely tries to hide his infidelity. The couple lives in a oppressively modern mansion that feels empty and cold, like their relationship. Susan mopes and sighs about her situation. “I feel ungrateful not to be happy,” she confides to a friend, encapsulating the plight of rich white people everywhere.
Then a package arrives in the mail. Her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she hasn’t seen in 19 years, has sent a galley of his new novel, which is dedicated to her (uh-oh). She gets a paper cut while opening the envelope (uh-oh!). That night, she puts on her designer reading glasses, which look like they cost more than your car, and digs in.
Here, writer-director Tom Ford starts a new movie. Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) is taking his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) on a road trip through West Texas. They are run off the road by a gang of cretinous rednecks looking for trouble.
One of them (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) takes particular pleasure in taunting and antagonizing the family. Tony is helpless to protect them. The scene is long and hard to watch. Even Susan can’t take any more of it, and she drops the book theatrically, as if it were burning her hands. She’s a really dramatic reader.
This is the second movie directed by Ford, the famed Gucci designer turned filmmaker. His first, 2009’s “A Single Man,” was an overstylized drama in which Colin Firth’s Oscar-nominated performance as a closeted college professor had to compete with Ford’s showboating camera work.
“Nocturnal Animals,” which is based on the late Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan,” is visually fussy and narcissistic. If this movie were a person, it would be constantly admiring itself in the mirror. Every bit of art direction calls attention to itself. That red couch with corpses draped over it sure is beautiful, no? Don’t worry, you’ll see it again, because symbolism.
Ford is incapable of crafting an uninteresting shot, which is why “Nocturnal Animals” is never boring. But the movie’s style invokes everything from David Lynch to Douglas Sirk to Tobe Hooper without becoming its own thing — it’s a pointless pastiche. The tremendous score, by Abel Korzeniowski, is lush and effective, but it works by stealing from Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann.
The actors all suffer beautifully, but their pain doesn’t register: It’s all affectations and red-rimmed eyes. Michael Shannon gives the movie a jolt of menace as a suspicious cop with an Old Testament sense of justice, and Laura Linney, as Susan’s monstrous high-society mama, leaves a mark even though she’s only in one scene (her necklace alone, with glistening pearls the size of bowling balls, deserved its own screen credit).
“Nocturnal Animals” juggles three simultaneous storylines — the present, the past and the horrific tale within the novel — and Ford, who also wrote the screenplay, folds them into each other at just the right moments. Intellectually, the movie should have worked. But the stakes are too low, and the puzzling questions posed by the ending aren’t worth pondering.
The opening credits of “Nocturnal Animals” play out over shots of overweight, middle-aged burlesque dancers performing in slow-motion, harsh lights accentuating their naked bodies. The images are striking, but they turn out to be meaningless — just the latest exhibit in Susan’s failing gallery. This movie belongs right up there next to them.