Nocturnal Animals ***

Meta thriller features a great cast and compelling story — pay attention to everything, because it all matters.

Is it worth $10? Yes

“Nocturnal Animals” could be a brilliant articulation of the way(s) art acts as a metaphor for reality.

Or it’s all bunk.

To be honest, the three-tiered, dark and densely complex narrative is a lot to digest. But this is what’s most important: It’s intriguing enough to make you eager to see it again, and because of that it receives a wholehearted recommendation from yours truly.

Amy Adams stars as Susan, an art gallery owner whose marriage to businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer) is falling apart. She receives a book manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whom she left 20 years earlier. As she reads the manuscript, entitled “Nocturnal Animals,” she feels an emotional connection to the characters even though it’s not based on true events. In the story-within-the-story, Tony (Gyllenhaal again) is on a road trip with wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber). While driving in a remote area of Texas they’re chased off the road by three roughnecks, and scumbags Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman) and Turk (Robert Aramayo) proceed to do bad things. A short time later, Michael Shannon appears as a lieutenant assigned to investigate the crime.

So is the “Nocturnal Animals” novel Edward writes a metaphor for his marriage to Susan? Possibly. Director Tom Ford (“A Single Man”), who made his name as a fashion designer, adapted the screenplay from a book called “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright, and the movie plays with perceptions of artistry, subjectivity and reality. For example, the opening moments of the film establish the subjective nature of art and beauty as its shows overweight women dancing naked in front of red curtains while sparklers and confetti fill the air. Is this the anti-thesis of social expectations of beauty, and therefore ugly? Or is it beautiful to see a truthful female form occupy space traditionally reserved for skinny models? It’s abstract live art to the extreme, and interpretation of it is entirely subjective.

If we presume Ford’s intentions were to allow Susan to see their marriage in Edward’s story, logical parallels can be drawn between the two. Flashbacks to the beginning of Susan and Edward’s relationship also lend perspective to this. Still, there are moments that don’t quite make sense upon initial viewing, such as the existence of Susan’s daughter (Andrea Riseborough) and why she only appears once.

To their credit the actors never seem lost regardless of how vague some of the material may feel. Adams, fresh off the success of “Arrival,” is solid as always, but it’s Gyllenhaal in the dual role who you’ll walk away remembering. We only see Edward in flashbacks, and Tony in the “Nocturnal Animals” visualization, but it’s notable (and appropriate) that the characters seem both similar and different in terms of personality. This is Gyllenhaal understanding nuance and subtlety, and using his substantial talent to create this sense in seemingly hidden ways.

Ford’s message in “Nocturnal Animals” seems to be that we all interpret art differently because we view it personally, and therefore no two people will experience the same art the same way. Sure there are broad strokes that we can identify and agree upon, but the exact level of enjoyment, criticism and appreciation is always individually unique. Capturing the essence of this idea in a movie is a spectacularly difficult task, but I daresay Ford accomplished it.

Or maybe he didn’t.

Did you know?
Tom Ford left the costuming to costume designer Arianne Phillips (“Walk the Line”). No Tom Ford products appear in the film.

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