This gritty drama, only writer/director Tom Ford's second film, features both style and substance, with striking aesthetics and intense drama.
Amy Adams plays Susan, an LA art dealer, who was once briefly married to writer Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). We will learn, through flashbacks, how Susan and Edward came together and fell apart (watch for a brief but indelible appearance by Laura Linney as Susan's mother), and that their time together still haunts them both. Susan's feelings are awakened when, after years of no communication, Edward sends her a novel he's written, Nocturnal Animals, and Susan recognizes themes of their past in the novel.
As Susan reads, Ford (A Single Man) takes us into the story within the story, with Gyllenhaal playing the novel's protagonist, Tony. He and his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher (The Great Gatsby), a ringer for Adams), and daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), are making their way through West Texas, driving on a deserted highway late into the night. A trio of sadistic ne'er-do-wells plays a game of chicken with them, and trouble ensues. (That's putting it mildly, but I don't want to spoil anything.) Eventually, police detective Bobby Andes (the always welcome and always intense Michael Shannon, Grace) will get involved, trying to help Tony.
It's clear that Tony is an avatar for Edward. (Tony will eventually shave his bear, making him look more like Edward.) These are two men who are trying to protect their family, but must grapple with how sensitive men can be strong and decisive. Edward and Tony feel helpless. Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler, Sunday in the Park with George) is mesmerizing, creating different but inextricably linked characters.
Ford, who first rose to fame as a fashion designer, creates provocative tableaux, so Amy Adams (Big Eyes, The Fighter) often has to communicate without words, which, of course, is no problem for the gifted actress. You can see her detachment when Susan's husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), once again has to attend to business rather than her, and you can see her fragility as Susan makes her way through the book (and, particularly, in the film's final moments). It also doesn't hurt that Susan is decked out in Arianne Phillips's sumptuous costumes (though none by Ford). Susan is impeccably put together, living the life she could never have had with Edward, which makes the moment she wipes off her lipstick a powerful one. We can create or remove whatever artifice we like, but in the end, restless creatures, these nocturnal animals, don't change.