‘Nocturnal Animals’: You can look, but you won’t be touched

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Amy Adams in “Nocturnal Animals.” | Focus Features

For all of the stark and exquisitely framed and expertly lit American Nightmare sequences set deep in the darkest heart of West Texas …

For all of the meticulously color-coordinated, breathtakingly stunning indoor tableaus set in high-end art galleries and Architectural Digest dwellings …

For all the valiant efforts by some of the finest and most interesting actors around …

For all the purple passion and pulp violence in the story-within-the-story …

“Nocturnal Animals” left me as cold and unaffected as any about prestige, A-list project I’ve seen all year.

This is a bloodless, cold, self-congratulatory exercise in style for style’s sake.

Tom Ford is an undeniably talented and influential fashion designer and style icon.

He made his directorial debut with “A Single Man” in 2009. It was a muted, well-made film starring Colin Firth in a fine and touching performance as a gay man in 1962.

Seven years later, “Nocturnal Animals.”

Amy Adams is Susan, who runs a successful and oh-so-pretentious art gallery, lives in a huge and beautiful and utterly sterile home with her beautiful and emotionally sterile husband Walter (Armie Hammer, who in every frame looks as if he’s in a fashion show).

Susan’s friends and associates wear ludicrously fashion-forward clothes and speak with all the passion of robots.

Susan isn’t much better. She’s comfortably numb.

One day, a manuscript arrives at Susan’s door.

It’s the latest novel from Susan’s long-ago ex, Edward, who is played by Jake Gyllenhaal in flashbacks.

The novel is titled “Nocturnal Animals.”

For much of the movie, as Susan reads the manuscript, Ford takes us into the world of the story, with Gyllenhaal playing Tony; Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Susan, and Ellie Bamber as their teenage daughter.

Tony, his wife and his daughter are taking a long drive through West Texas, on a little family getaway to Marfa.

Right around the time they lose cell service and the road seems to be headed directly into blackness, some rowdy toughs run them off the road.

The rowdy toughs strut and threaten and talk like rowdy toughs, but like everyone else in “Nocturnal Animals,” they’re exceptionally good-looking and they appear to belong to the “4 Percent or Below Body Fat Gang.”

Ford cuts back and forth from that story-within-the-story to the “real” world, where Susan laments the way things ended with Edward when they were young, and despairs over the state of her dying marriage to Walter.

Very bad things happen in the West Texas story.

Meanwhile, Susan takes baths and showers and tries to rinse off the sadness and regret of her life, or something.

Every indoor set, from bathroom to kitchen to restaurants, is so perfectly arranged it’s distracting.

Every outdoor sequence, including a burgeoning blizzard in New York City and some nasty business involving bloodshed in West Texas, is filmed with equal attention to detail.

Susan has flashbacks to when she fell in love with Edward, when both were in their early 20s.

Susan’s mother, played by Laura Linney as though she wandered over from a made-for-TV movie about Pat Nixon, scolds Susan for wanting to marry someone beneath her status.

Whether Ford is filming a performance art sequence featuring obese, nude, dancing women or staging a crime scene in which nude corpses are arranged like mannequins, “Nocturnal Animals” is filled with images that should disturb, or provoke, or provide insight into the larger picture.

Mostly, though, they’re just interesting, attention-seeking, vapid gestures.

The great Michael Shannon shows up as a Texas lawman with, shall we say, unorthodox investigative methods.

At times the score is reminiscent of something out of a Hitchcock movie; at other times it reminded me of “Basic Instinct” and other such trash.

The device of “Nocturnal Animals” the novel as Edward’s way of telling Susan how much he hurt her, and Susan reacting to passages in the novel as if they’re happening in “real” life, is interesting and promising — but becomes tiresome.

Also, we spend far too much time in that parallel world, knowing all the while it’s just a story Susan is reading. The dramatic stakes are nil.

Movies with characters who have so much at stake should not hang on the screen like works of modern art.

Movies like that should reach out and grab us.

Everyone involved in “Nocturnal Animals” should go see “Manchester By the Sea.”


Focus Features presents a film written and directed by Tom Ford, based on the novel “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright. Rated R (for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language). Running time: 117 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.

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