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'Nocturnal Animals' seems like a shambles but secretly isn't

Tom Ford's second movie (after "A Single Man") is a story-within-a-story about a writer messing with the mind of an ex.

‘Nocturnal Animals’
Director:
Tom Ford
Stars: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Obese, naked women, rocking American decals and firecrackers, dancing on separate stands in front of a moneyed audience. This is how Tom Ford chooses to open “Nocturnal Animals.” Is it a dig at the U.S.? At the silliness of art? And what does it have to do with the other insanities to come? These include: a woman contacted by a longtime ex, a quest for bloody vengeance, naked, defiled bodies, a very serious Jake Gyllenhaal performance, a very silly Michael Shannon one. The fashion god-turned-filmmaker’s follow-up to “A Single Man” is a gumbo of ingredients that seem to have nothing to do with each other, not even the film has ended. But it’s told with such confidence, such precision, that even if it doesn’t appear to all tie up, it seems like it should.

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And maybe it does. Adapted from Austin Wright’s “Tony and Susan,” it’s a story about someone reading a story, with a third story peppered in as flashbacks. In the main, there’s Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a glamorous gallery owner with a philandering husband (Armie Hammer). One day she receives a mysterious package: It’s the new novel by the ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal), she hasn’t seen in two decades. She opens it and we’re plunged into the tale within — a grisly revenge grinder about a man (Gyllenhaal again) whose wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) are raped and murdered by West Texas ne’er-do-wells (led by a showboating Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Luckily (if you will), there’s a cancer-ridden, don’t-give-an-eff detective (Shannon) gung-ho about getting our fictional hero get some Texas justice.

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Susan reads on with rapt attention, occasionally leaning back orgasmically in fits of pain-meets-pleasure. What turns her on/off is left ambiguous. A note from Edward says the book is different from his previous work, suggesting he finally found his voice. It’s also dedicated to her. But his intentions are left unclear. Even with Gyllenhaal doing double duty, we don’t know if the story is semi-autobiographical. We don’t know if it’s the excellence or the intensity of the book that so grabs Susan. We don’t know what she's supposed to take away from this tale of murder, rape and vengeance down south.

We might be gripped anyway. As with Ford’s “A Single Man,” this is a predictably design-heavy film, even if half of it is set in arid wastelands and ramshackle shacks, with men in Stetsons and dusty denim. But he’s become sharp at audience manipulation. He lets the most horrifying scenes play out slowly and gradually, allowing him to raise tension then defuse it, then bring it back, this time higher. He knows how to throw in leftfield elements to throw us off, to make us even more uneasy. Eventually he gets the master of the random, letting Shannon do his weirdo comic thing; the climax is sickeningly nervous, in part because Shannon keeps periodically interrupting a sticky situation to run to the bathroom and vomit.

But the eternal question: What does it all mean? It’s an overrated query, especially when a film knows how to command attention. But we’re not convinced this is all flash, all cool stuff for the sake of cool stuff. So here goes: It’s a film about the act of creation. What it finds isn’t flattering: Edward, who we only see as a weak-willed yet tetchy struggling writer in flashbacks, has created art strictly as a way of messing with the mind of an ex.

Just as there’s multiple layers of story, there are multiple layers of fantasy. “Nocturnal Animals” could be about a monster of passive-aggression seeking to upset and devastate the one that got away. Or our hero could secretly be Edward, and his visions of Susan becoming undone by his new masterpiece is his petty fantasy about an old flame getting what he thinks are her just desserts. Either way, it’s a film that understands the rancid side of creating art: that sometimes it doesn’t come from a place that’s good. Sometimes it only reveals the dark soul of the artist at work. “Nocturnal Animals” knows how to be strong in the moment, but maybe it's more arresting once the lights have risen.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge
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