A nice, polite, middle-class man goes after the homicidal goons who brutalized his wife and daughter — the plot of the 1974 Charles Bronson film “Death Wish,” and a thousand revenge thrillers just like it. Torn between romance and money, a woman betrays the sensitive fellow she loves to go with the wealthy player who can provide the life she desires — a plot that goes back to Edith Wharton and Douglas Sirk, or maybe “Dallas.” “Nocturnal Animals,” the first film Tom Ford has written and directed since his stunning debut feature, “A Single Man,” in 2009, draws its lurid, heavy-breathing elements from deep inside the well of pulp and noir and soap opera. (It’s based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel “Tony and Susan.”) Yet Ford, the celebrated fashion designer, doesn’t just recycle pulp — he aestheticizes it by taking it dead seriously. He strives to turn pulp into art.
“Nocturnal Animals,” which premiered today at the 73rd International Venice Film Festival, is a suspenseful and intoxicating movie — a thriller that isn’t scared to go hog-wild with violence, to dig into primal fear and rage, even as it’s constructed around a melancholy love story that circles back on itself in tricky and surprising ways. With Amy Adams as a posh, married, but deeply lonely Los Angeles art-gallery owner, and Jake Gyllenhaal as the novelist from her past who finds himself trapped in a nightmare, the movie has two splendid actors working at the top of their game, and more than enough refined dramatic excitement to draw awards-season audiences hungry for a movie that’s intelligent and sensual at the same time.
At a glance, “Nocturnal Animals,” with its hot glare of sex and violence, seems like a totally different animal from “A Single Man,” which was a magic-hour L.A. period piece about a refined gay professor in the pre-liberation era. Yet there’s an organic link between them. The Colin Firth character in “A Single Man” may have been conservative and closeted, but he was rapturously romantic — and Ford, in one of the most daring moves in modern gay cinema, portrayed that very romanticism in ways that linked it to a more repressed era. He tapped into the richness of feelings that could only be expressed underground. “Nocturnal Animals,” too, is a movie by a born romantic — only now, the love he portrays is threatened by a scary and corrupt world.
The credits sequence is an outrageous grabber: a series of heavy-set women, nearly nude, jiggling in slow motion and leering into the camera like middle-aged burlesque strippers, while music that’s voluptuous and forlorn enough to have been composed by Bernard Herrmann (the score is by Abel Korzeniowski) floods the soundtrack. It turns out that we’re watching an art installation at the gallery owned and curated by Susan Morrow (Adams), and what it expresses, in a very extreme way, is everything our junky cosmetic culture doesn’t “allow.” It’s a rebuke to moneyed perfection.
We soon see what Susan is rebelling against. She lives in one of those steely modernist L.A. mansions that seems designed not to be touched by human hands, and her marriage to the distant, model-handsome Hutton (Armie Hammer), who is some sort of financial heavy, has clearly entered its ice-cold death phrase. What’s more, their life of luxury has become a sham; they are actually broke, and trying to keep up appearances as Hutton jets off to New York to prop up another deal.
The whole setup borders on silver-spoon cliché, but then Ford leads us into another world. Susan has been sent the manuscript of a novel, entitled “Nocturnal Animals,” written by her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal), with whom she hasn’t spoken for 19 years. She puts on her big glasses, opens the book, and starts reading, and that leads into an extended sequence of hypnotizing intensity: Gyllenhaal’s character, along with his wife and teenage daughter, are on a trip, driving through West Texas in the middle of the night (they’ve decided to do the road equivalent of a red-eye), when a car starts to pull up beside them and force them off the road. Inside the car are three nasty, drawling delinquent varmints, the kind we’ve seen in movies countless times before, but Ford has staged this encounter with a frighteningly existential, this is really happening bravado that keeps you riveted.
The leader of the gang is Ray, played in long black sideburns by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who gives this taunting sociopath a strange kind of depth. On some level, the sequence is pure redneck-gothic craziness (think “Death Wish” meets “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”), and on another level it’s an all-too-real domestic dreamscape of sexual terrorism in which Gyllenhaal, apart from his fear and loathing, is forced, at every turn, to confront that he’s too “weak” to solve this situation with the kind of heroic action we’re used to: by meeting violence with violence. The movie says, implicitly, that he’s not Bronson or Liam Neeson — he’s you or me.
Each time the film cuts back to Adams reading the novel, we’re reminded that none of this may even have happened. But it sure feels like it did. The movie then intercuts what transpired 20 years ago between Susan and Edward, who grew up together in Texas and wound up in New York, where they reunited and got married. We see the sincerity of their love, but also how the worm of professional failure eats away at their relationship — exactly as Susan’s tough-broad Texas martini-swilling Republican mother, played (in a brilliant turn) by Laura Linney, predicted. There’s an echo of the same conflict that powers “La La Land,” a conflict that is very much of the moment: Can love survive in an age when people who want to be artists have been left with almost no economic foundation? Edward is trying to write novels, and until he succeeds it looks like he might spend his life working in a bookstore, but that’s not enough for Susan — and we understand why. She’s not portrayed as greedy; she just wants a life. And so she destroys the one she has.
Here, as in “A Single Man,” Ford’s staging is staid and classical, elegant and at times a touch overdeliberate, although he’s ambitious without being pretentious. Ford is a true moviemaker — a social observer who’s a junkie for sensation and narrative. He has structured “Nocturnal Animals” beautifully, so that the past truly feeds into the present, and fiction into reality. Gyllenhaal, still ensnared by what happened in West Texas, gets to know a small-town Texas cop, played by Michael Shannon with a mean glint of suspicion that, at first, makes it seem like he’s not much interested in helping this Yankee. But the two men form a fascinating bond. Gyllenhaal’s performance goes to a place of real terror and despair, and when the movie flashes back, he, along with Adams, seems younger, possessed by a more vital spirit. “Nocturnal Animals” is on some level a cautionary tale about the false gods that can lead one to make the wrong choices.
It must be said that other refined movies have gone to these places before. The granddaddy of them all is “Blue Velvet,” the great postmodern Hitchcockian noir that turned pulp sensation into a surrealist high. Then there was “In the Bedroom,” which may be the most sophisticated revenge thriller ever staged; it was like a Bronson movie made by Merchant-Ivory. “Nocturnal Animals” isn’t as good as those films, yet it seizes and holds you — with its suspense, and its vision. It leaves no doubt as to Tom Ford’s fervor and originality as a director, and it leaves you hoping that he’ll make his next film before another seven years passes by.