Movie review: 'Nocturnal Animals' layers stories for Ford's follow-up

Brad Keefe, Columbus Alive
"Nocturnal Animals"

It's been six years since fashion designer Tom Ford directed his first feature film, "A Single Man," the quietly devastating portrait of a closeted gay professor dealing with the death of his longtime partner in 1960s Los Angeles.

For his second film, "Nocturnal Animals," Ford intertwines narratives in layered tales with layered meanings. It's messy at times, and sure to be divisive, but again there's an unexpected artistry in Ford's writing and directing skills.

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a New York art gallery owner - an occupation set up in what could only be described as a memorable opening credit sequence. One day, an unexpected package arrives at her fancy apartment containing a proof of an upcoming novel by her ex-husband Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal).

The novel is called "Nocturnal Animals," and the onscreen narrative soon splits between Susan's present life, her past with Tony and the recreation of the narrative of the novel.

The novel presents a twisting and violent tale about a husband (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his family who have an encounter on an isolated Texas highway that turns sinister.

Working from Austin Wright's 1993 novel "Tony and Susan," Ford's juxtaposition of the novel's pulpy rural setting and Susan's bourgeoisie life feels very red state/blue state in the moment. It can be jarring, and parts of this film won't work for everyone.

But there's also a cleverly unfolding story here surrounding Susan and Tony's past that adds to the tension.

Adams anchors the real-world setting, and it's good that such a fine actress is in a role that requires a fair number of scenes that are just her reading and reacting. But it's in the world of the novel where the real acting fireworks take place.

Gyllenhaal works a range of emotions - in both characters - but things really kick into another level with the appearance of Michael Shannon as a hard-nosed Texas police investigator. Of course the role is in Shannon's wheelhouse, but that's the point.

The novel's narrative involves a few leaps of good faith and strained believability, but it's interesting as it parallels with Adams' character. (In a cheeky casting move, the wife in the novel storyline is portrayed by Adams' Hollywood doppelganger, Isla Fisher.)

Ford sometimes edges into David Lynch-ian weirdness, and some may find "Nocturnal Animals" to be a bit of a hot mess. Regardless, it's one well worth watching.

"Nocturnal Animals"

Opens Friday

3 ½ stars