Critics. Artists adore them when they come bearing praise and hate them when they're opinions fall short of effusive. Tom Ford knows this dichotomy well, both as a fashion designer and a filmmaker. And judging by his mesmerizingly vitriolic "Nocturnal Animals" he has no use for these gutless cowards callously decreeing thumbs up or down without ever lifting a finger to create something of their own. Let's put them in their place, his movie says, and let vengeance be thy name.
Oh, and what a well-deserved blistering my fraternity takes through the lovely lightning rod that is Amy Adams' art curator Susan Morrow. She wanted to be an artist, but could never find the nerve. So did her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer she crushed under the weight of her uninformed criticism. But guess what? After 19 years of estrangement, he's back via the spanking new manuscript he's mailed to the Los Angelino from his native Texas. It's titled "Nocturnal Animals," and it's dedicated to her.
Could there be a more inviting invitation for a lifelong narcissist? Boldly, from behind the towering gates of her stainless steel mansion, Susan opens the pages and begins to read, reminisce and think what might have been as we watch her interpretation of the novel play out like a movie inside her head. The setting is nighttime on a lonely stretch of highway across the desert Southwest. Tony Hastings, his wife and arrogant teenage daughter are run off the Interstate by a car full of rowdy rednecks prime for a fight. The locals take the females hostage and leave Tony to die out in the middle of nowhere.
The confrontation is intense, riveting and frightening. It's also something you'd expect from a Peckinpah, not the guy who directed the quiet, devastating "A Single Man." But, yes, this is Tom Ford, challenging himself, putting his reputation out there in order to create unsettling art that's powerful in its commentary about our two Americas, the red abducting the blue. The smug, privileged liberals forced off the road by the reckless alt-right deplorables. But that's merely subtext, as is Tony's acquaintance with a gnarly, Stetson-wearing Texas Ranger (Michael Shannon, an Oscar-worthy hoot) vowing to apprehend the vermin and punish them as he -- not the courts -- see fit.
The real story here is Susan, within whose mind lurks everything we see, including the casting of the movie playing inside her head. It's telling, too, that she sees Edward (Gyllenhaal) as Tony and doppelgangers of herself in Tony's wife (actually Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). What she fails to see is that the novel's themes of revenge and redemption are metaphors for Edward's opinions of her and how she hijacked and killed something dear to him years ago when she insinuated he lacked talent.
Might Edward be having the last laugh? He's certainly caught Susan at her most vulnerable, given the state of her loveless marriage to her current husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), and her self-loathing and regret over letting Edward get away. Yes, Susan's brain is a busy place, jumping back and forth from the present, her past and her obsession with Edward's novel. And this presents an extremely tough challenge for Ford to keep this three-ring circus lucid and fluid. No easy task, given this is only his second movie. But he pulls it off splendidly with invaluable assists from the lush cinematography by Seamus McGarvey and the Bernard Herrmann-inspired score by composer Abel Korzeniowski that perfectly match the film's engrossing noir tone.
It's the actors, though, who make it sing. There's not a stinker among them, including Laura Linney in a powerful, showstopping cameo as Susan's elitist mother and a scary Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the hunky, charismatic psycho leading the road-raging rednecks. But the film, which Ford adapted from Austin Wright's "Tony and Susan," thrives on the presence of Adams, Gyllenhaal and Shannon, all of whom are spellbinding. I can't recall Adams ever playing such a malleable, self-absorbed character, but she bravely owns it from behind her garish, overdone eyeshadow, taking us down the rabbit hole that is Susan's messed-up mind.
The movie is so gorgeous Adams could have easily faded into Ford's evocative sets, which could double as backdrops for one of his fashion shoots. But there's much more to her -- and the film itself -- than pretty pictures. There's also an ugliness lurking menacingly underneath that's reminiscent of movies by David Lynch, whose fingerprint is visible in the film's opening when Ford greets us with a half-dozen morbidly obese women dancing naked, and Alfred Hitchcock, whose gift for suspense is boldly on display in the abduction scene. It's fabulous work that asks much of the viewer, who is left to interpret and distill. It's subliminal art at its finest. And it does what art does best: Get you thinking and talking. In the end, it's all in the eye of the beholder. And "Nocturnal Animals" is truly something to behold.
Cast includes Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer and Laura Linney.
(R for violence, menace, graphic nudity and language.)