The trailers for Nocturnal Animals are wonderfully inconclusive, especially given the tendency to tell the audience exactly what they're getting or, failing that, what might have gotten if a particular movie had been shot, scored, and edited differently. For example, you might not realize from the trailer that in this movie, Isla Fisher fulfills her career-long destiny by playing a doppelgänger for Amy Adams, or that the movie uses that doppelgänger as one of three separate-yet-parallel narratives. It is clear, though, that the movie is by Tom Ford, the fashion designer turned part-time filmmaker.
This would be clear from early in the film, even if the ads were not so upfront about Ford's participation, because the movie opens with Amy Adams looking lacquered and stylized in a way that she isn't, usually, unless she's playing a fairy-tale princess (Enchanted) or maybe the girl-next-door version of one (The Muppets). Here she's playing Susan Morrow, the successful owner of an art gallery, whose past comes back to haunt her in the form of a manuscript. Her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) has written a novel called Nocturnal Animals, and he sends her an early copy. As she loses herself in the book, Nocturnal Animals the movie starts telling its story onscreen with Gyllenhaal in the lead (and Isla Fisher as a woman who's presumably based on Susan). It also flashes back to the early days of Susan and Edward's courtship.
The actual narratives here are relatively unambiguous, and clearly demarcated even when Ford is matching them with parallel images, like the way two bodies, one fictional and one real, are positioned the same in two very different situations – or unnerving casting that places Laura Linney, Amy Adams, and Andrea Riseborough (total age difference: 17 years) as grandmother, mother, and daughter. The ambiguities come instead from the mystery of the reverie Susan finds herself in as she reads Nocturnal Animals: Is she reacting to the story's gripping luridness, or something she recognizes more directly from her past?
Ford gets the suspense working on multiple levels. Even though the novel excerpts are specifically tagged as fiction, the nagging question of how much they might reflect "real" life hangs over them – and most of these scenes work on their own, too, despite some unexpected roughness within Ford's visual polish. The novel, sort of a literary potboiler, kicks off with a long, tense car scene, where a family is menaced by a group of miscreants in the dead of night in Texas, and while it's harrowing, there's also a peculiarly false ring to it as depicted in the film. For all of his facility with their emotional lives, Ford (who also writes his own screenplays) never gets his characters talking quite right (and it's a small detail, but when he shows us his characters' emails onscreen, those phrasings are even more stilted).
It's a logical fault in a director known, just two films in, for his immaculately arranged images – though his reputation isn't quite so unforgiving. I read countless reviews of his first film, A Single Man, that mentioned how the film could have, with its fashionable origins, looked like an inert perfume ad, but really came to life instead. I must have missed that bit; the Single Man I saw was a slow, bloodless bore. Nocturnal Animals presents a stronger contrast between Ford's careful arrangement (applied to the Adams scenes, with their outlandish art-world costumes, eye-catching single-scene cameos, and chic art direction) and a looser, rougher look. The in-novel bits, especially, have some more dust and grit, without sacrificing beauty; Michael Shannon gets a gorgeous motel parking lot push-in. Both modes look great, and there's no shame in that (though maybe Ford could be a little bit sheepish about the way he makes Adams wear big chunky glasses just like Colin Firth did in A Single Man).
Ultimately, the film is more than a star-studded fashion shoot, but a great deal less than it seems to think. Nocturnal Animals is basically melodrama gussied up as a meditation on strength, masculinity, and identity, made convincing in the moment by a hell of a stacked cast. Just to review, this is an ensemble with Adams, Gyllenhaal, Shannon, Isla Fisher, Laura Linney, Armie Hammer, Jena Malone, and Michael Sheen — which makes it a little perverse that Aaron Taylor-Johnson gets so much screen time as a scraggly Texan. Many of the other famous faces make impressions more than characters. Gyllenhaal, for example, always acts with conviction, but he's revisiting material that's not wildly different from the superior Zodiac and Prisoners. It's Adams, who possesses one of the current cinema's great reactive faces, who holds it all together. I'm not sure if I could watch her read the phone book, as the old phrase goes, but I could watch her read Nocturnal Animals for a couple of hours, and I might even come away convinced there was something more to it.