Like a chef who's too proud of his special sauce, director Tom Ford makes it difficult to appreciate the meat and potatoes underneath in his second feature, Nocturnal Animals. Adapted by Ford from the Austin Wright novel Tony and Susan, it's far more complex than Ford's debut, A Single Man; and the director's arty touches make it more confusing than necessary.
Two stories unfoldone in a novel being read by a woman in the other. Susan ( Amy Adams ) is the reader, and Tony ( Jake Gyllenhaal ) is the novel's main character. But Gyllenhaal also plays Edward, the book's author and Susan's ex-husband. Tony's wife in the novel is played by Isla Fisher, who looks like Adams but isn't.
The "real" story takes place in the present, but with flashbacks to 20 or so years ago. Adams plays Susan in both periods but any difference in her appearance is due to the amount of makeup she wears in a scene, not the age she's supposed to be playing.
Tony has a beard for most of the film, but when he shaves it he looks remarkably like the young Edward.
The exes haven't spoken in 19 years, but Edward sends Susan a proof of his upcoming novel, Nocturnal Animals, which is dedicated to her. The film, incidentally, is dedicated "to Richard and Jack." Richard is presumably Ford's husband, Richard Buckley; but the way the story turns out, that may not be a good thing.
Susan owns an art gallery and has long been married to an outwardly wealthy but cash-poor businessman ( Armie Hammer ). She's living the life her conservative, elitist mother ( Laura Linney ) wished for her, and hating it.
As Susan starts reading Edward's novel, we see that story unfold. It begins with a tense confrontation between Tony, his wife and daughter, and three rowdy rednecks who run them off the road. After it ends badly, Tony gets assistance from Bobby Andes ( Michael Shannon ), who is essentially the same character Jeff Bridges played in Hell or High Water: a Texas lawman coming to the end of the trail.
This story would have made a better movie by itself, but Ford keeps cutting back to Susansometimes when she's reading it, which makes sense, but sometimes at random moments, like soaking in a hot tub. One cut to Susan reading turns out to be young Susan reading something Edward wrote while they were married.
The ending brings fact and fiction, past and present together in a way that makes sense and a point. If we hadn't worked so hard for two hours to keep track of Ford's juggling act, it would make it all worthwhile.
I haven't read the source novel but I suspect Ford added at least one of the film's two gay elements, a cocktail party conversation in which Alessia ( Andrea Riseborough ), reportedly based on Ford's best friend, tells Susan about the advantages of having a gay husband ( Michael Sheen ).
More relevant is discussion of Susan's unseen gay brother, a bone of contention between her and her unaccepting mother. He had been Edward's best friend in school, when Edward didn't know he was crushing on him.
The acting is excellent. Aside from the confusion caused by her appearance, Adams is as good as she was in Arrival. I can watch Gyllenhaal in anything ( or nothing, as he appears in two scenes ); and Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays the novel's chief villain, have been fittingly recognized throughout award season.
With so many good elements, it's a shame filmmaker Ford didn't take a cue from fashion designer Ford and sew them together more flatteringly. I don't mind a movie that presents an intelligent challenge, but I resent having to do mental gymnastics because the filmmaker didn't think things through.
Nocturnal Animals will start running Friday, Feb. 3, at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., and is currently running at ArcLight Chicago, 1500 N. Clybourn Ave.