Ford has ambitiously structured the film on three overlapping planes, centering on Susan (Amy Adams), a wealthy art-gallery owner, whose outwardly glamorous life obscures a terribly unhappy and loveless marriage.
With her philandering husband (Armie Hammer) away on a trip, she receives galleys for an upcoming book from her first husband, which bears a dedication to her. Titled “Nocturnal Animals,” she dives into reading it, triggering flashbacks about the choices she made, and regrets she harbors over the end of that relationship.
Susan’s ex, Edward, is played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who performs double duty by also starring in the third thread — the book’s fictional yarn about a motorist, his family and a tragic encounter on the highway. That unfolding story — grim and brutal as it is — obviously informs the flashbacks, to the extent that Edward has tipped off that the novel has been vaguely inspired by the couple’s past.
To Ford’s credit, the fictional subplot — set in a dusty and desolate part of Texas — feels the most vibrant and compelling, causing one to forget that this is a work of fiction within a movie. It’s also extremely well cast, with Michael Shannon as a gruff sheriff and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the leader of the trio that Edward’s character has the misfortune to meet.
At the same time, Susan’s narrowly drawn lot proves relatively weak, leaving Adams little to do but emit heavy sighs and longing gazes as she burrows into the manuscript and battles insomnia, rekindling long-dormant feelings and reopening old wounds.
It’s tempting but too dismissive to say Ford (whose first film was 2009’s “A Single Man”) exalts style over substance. He’s clearly more than a dabbler in moviemaking, bringing both considerable tension and wit to this story, especially when his rich creative types dash off amusing lines like, “Having a gay husband is not such a bad thing.”
Yet while “Nocturnal Animals” keeps the audience on edge, it doesn’t possess much of a lingering kick. Given that Ford seems intent on contemplating what we truly value, that dynamic adds up to a movie that’s worth seeing, but also one lacking the kind of depth that’s worth losing sleep over.
“Nocturnal Animals” opens in select U.S. cities on November 18 and nationwide on December 9. It’s rated R.