Perhaps no one other than fashion designer Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) could’ve nailed the beautiful, perverse, bizarre blend of high and low art he attains in “Nocturnal Animals.” Equal parts alluring and sickening, sexy and bleak, lush and trashy, Ford’s film within a film is deliciously silly pulp, but also stylishly deep and smart in its examination of psychology and privilege.
The disturbing dichotomy between each of those polar opposites starts as soon as the movie does, when Ford stages a perplexing, bordering on exploitative opening credits sequence. Morbidly obese women dance fully nude except for some Stars and Stripes hats and streamers. They’re dancing in front of a bold, deep red backdrop and writhe and gyrate endlessly in slow motion. Ford sees them as grotesque and trashy, but also as sensuous, hypnotic, beautiful and human.
The dancing turns out to all be part of Amy Adams’s art gallery, where she glides detached and unaware through the garishness on display. Her life is perfect and extravagant. Her home is luxurious and empty. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is a perfect specimen, but also lifeless and barely hiding an affair. She’s delivered a manuscript written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) called “Nocturnal Animals,” a pet name he used to describe her ambition.
His story is a seedy noir in which a family on a road trip gets terrorized by a car of jacked up good ‘ol boys. It feels not unlike something out of Peckinpah, and though this story is the gritty, dark and tense contrast to the lavish ennui of an art exhibitionist, Ford includes the same stylized repulsiveness in each half. In the noir, the family’s father (also played by Gyllenhaal) sees his kidnapped wife (Isla Fisher, a stroke of ingenious casting as Adams’s doppelganger) and daughter’s naked, dead bodies tossed on a bright red couch, a disturbing call back to the film’s opening imagery. And in Adams’s story, she has a debilitating conversation with her mother, an exaggerated figure of wealth and opulence with a massive hairdo and pearls and earrings too large for her face. She viciously dashes Adams’s dreams, ambitions and loves in a scene as memorable as any within the noir.
“Nocturnal Animals’” problem then is that it’s so serious and important in its presentation of how high art corrupts, but it’s also laughably bizarre. Michael Shannon as the detective investigating Gyllenhaal’s murder case walks this line with the most detached disregard. He deadpan barks his lines but can also wield his crazed, widened eyes as he beats a suspect senseless. And in another standout, Aaron Taylor Johnson as one of the kidnapping suspects gives a scenery chewing, lip-smacking, dick-waving performance. He’s cartoonishly monstrous, and it will be a debate until the end of time whether what he does here is actually good.
Ford wants us to be of two minds about his film, glaringly showing us the seams and the style so that he can comment on them with broad strokes. It’s magnificent filmmaking that can’t be fully great because we know it to be a complicated, artistic statement neatly framed on the wall.
3 ½ stars