In the opening images of Nocturnal Animals, the new thriller written and directed by fashion mogul Tom Ford, obese naked women dance in slow motion, holding sparklers and looking directly into the camera. It's a provocative way to open a movie. It also feels like the kind of empty art that regards itself as delightfully impertinent. This does not bode well.
Fortunately, Ford pulls back to a story that puts the opening images in context. The dancing ladies are part of an art exhibition by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a deeply unhappy L.A. gallery owner married to the imperious Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) and surrounded by brittle cynics in the L.A. art scene. "Enjoy the absurdity of our world," advises a dinner-party guest. "It's a lot less painful than the real world." The more we learn about Susan, the more her empty art makes sense.
One morning, Susan gets a package in the mail, a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). In flashback, we learn that Edward was Susan's first true love, an aspiring novelist with a good heart but dubious prospects. Many years ago, Susan broke that good heart, choosing gold over love. As Susan reads, we enter the story of the novel, in which a vacationing family is menaced by a gang of terrifying desert rednecks. Forced off the road, the father (Gyllenhaal again) has opportunities to fight back but never does. His wife and daughter pay the price, and Tony later teams up with a strange lawman (Michael Shannon) to seek justice.
The movie continues to crosscut between stories. The desert sequences are scary as hell. Ford blows out the Texas noir locations into a lurid pulp nightmare. We're invited to compare the visceral violence in the book with the emotional violence in Susan's life. Lesser performers might get lost in all this twisty darkness, but Adams and Gyllenhaal provide an emotional authenticity that elevates Ford's glammed-out pulp fiction.
At times the film feels like a cold aesthetic object, a piece of art meant to be admired from afar. But in other moments the story runs white-hot, at once a bloody thriller and a quietly devastating tale of lost love. This dynamic tension is weird and rewarding, and the final scene is a gut punch. Nocturnal Animals may not be the best film of the awards season, but it just might be the most interesting.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Auteur Season."