Of the two-and-a-half plot threads in Nocturnal Animals, the most accessible is the story of Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man speeding down a lonely Texas highway late at night with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). What they're doing there, in the middle of nowhere on a sultry night, is debatable, but Tony, the picture of a mild-mannered, upscale family type, is already frightened when we first meet him. For one thing, he's got the wrong wheels — in West Texas you're better off in a pickup or an SUV rather than a Mercedes.
Bad things happen to Tony and his family, in the persons of Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou (Karl Glusman), and Turk (Robert Aramayo), a trio of troublemakers with a road rage pretext for terrorizing the outsiders. But just as we're getting totally wrapped up in that crime yarn we're jerked back to the main thread. Tony's ordeal is a story within a story, a novel in manuscript form also called Nocturnal Animals, sent to Los Angeles art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) by her ex-husband Edward. Tony and Edward are both portrayed by Gyllenhaal. In fact, all three threads, including a demi-flashback to Susan and Edward's younger days, take place in Susan's mind.
Tom Ford, the fashionista-turned-filmmaker who adapted Christopher Isherwood's gay-themed character study A Single Man with Colin Firth, has a self-consciously sophisticated urban sensibility, and he gives it free rein in showing Susan's predicament. In common with the director himself, both Susan and Edward are Texas products. But it's established in flashback that wishy-washy Edward was too "sensitive" for his wife's taste, and she dumped him to take up with the ludicrously named Hutton Morrow, an icy business-man played by Armie Hammer, who dwells with Susan in a chilly concrete-and-glass bunker when he's not out playing around on business trips. So, as Ford's adaptation of Austin Wright's novel Tony and Susan would have it, Susan threw away a weak man devoted to her for a shallow cheater, and now fantasizes about things that might have been. The two separated ex-lovers "communicate" with each other through the stressful fictional story of Tony.
Much is made of Susan's effete milieu, with its inherently predatory art works — the film opens with a montage of obese nude females writhing at the gallery reception — and supercilious hangers-on. A friend reminds her that, "Our world is a lot less painful than the real world," but Susan isn't buying that. The reward for cruelty is emptiness, and wealth brings her no joy. As sharp and terrifying as Tony's misadventure may be, Susan's discontent is the driving engine of the film, memorably etched by Adams and Gyllenhaal, both operating well within their comfort zones.
Nocturnal Animals is not without its faults. It's the type of "modern psychological thriller" that pops up predictably every year just in time for awards consideration, angling for praise, and then evaporates just as rapidly after the prizes are handed out. Ford is not Michelangelo Antonioni, but there are moments in Susan and Edward/Tony's agonizing that are as involving as anything in theaters this season. Problem is, the competing through-lines sap their own energy — a writing fault compounded by a preference for fashionable fragmentation.
Good as Adams and Gyllenhaal are in the lead roles, they're eclipsed by master scene-stealer Michael Shannon as Texas police detective Bobby Andes, dying of lung cancer but full of piss and vinegar. Shannon makes even okay dialogue sound brilliant, and his facial expressions rival most novels in the "good read" category. It's tempting to imagine Tony and Andes' desert whack-a-thon as a stand-alone walk on the wild side. But then we'd miss Susan's decidedly more ironic perspective. Kudos to Ford for even trying to bridge the gap between the two sides of this perplexing drama, which after all happens in the imagination of a lonely woman tossing and turning in her bed.