*** stars (out of four)
After making a splash with A Single Man, writer/director Tom Ford returns with Nocturnal Animals, an exploration of failed relationships and how people tackle their pasts through their art.
Amy Adams plays a gallery owner in a loveless marriage to a businessman (Armie Hammer). They live a luxurious lifestyle, but both of their businesses are struggling. Adams receives a manuscript written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). They were childhood friends who married young, but Adams quickly ended the marriage in divorce.
The film cuts back and forth between Adams and the manuscript’s story. In that narrative, a husband and father (also Gyllenhaal) is attacked on the road by thugs (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who rape and murder his wife (Adams look-a-like Isla Fisher) and daughter. He teams up with a Texas ranger (Michael Shannon) to seek justice.
The story-within-a-story is compelling in its own right (I’d watch a TV show called Michael Shannon, Texas Ranger). Taylor-Johnson, who’s toiled in films like Kick-Ass and Godzilla, turns in career-best work as the bad guy. But what’s most interesting about Nocturnal Animals is how it examines creativity. When people explore their demons in their art, are they exorcising them or are they feeding them?
Nocturnal Animals never gives the audience an easy answer about the creative process or the nature of what’s forgivable or unforgivable in relationships. It’s a smart film that’s worth a look.