Nocturnal Animals ✮✮

Night Moves

by Glenn Lovell

Tom Ford’s downbeat drama-within-a drama “Nocturnal Animals” works overtime to shock. Indeed, it works so hard it eventually doubles in on itself and winds up, thanks to so many loose ends, more stultifying than suspenseful. The stories, set in Los Angeles and West Texas, Ford’s stomping grounds, are preceded by a sequence that’s bizarre even by John Waters or David Lynch standards. A naked plus-plus-size woman wearing a drum-majorette hat and holding sparklers boogaloos in slow motion, her layers of flab rising and falling, like rubber wings.

This is Ford aping the Gore Vidal of “Myra Breckinridge,” bending over backwards to play schoolboy provocateur. The opposite of the filmmaker who needs to curry favor, he challenges, “Hey, sucker, I dare you to leave.” This stratagem worked on the seriously weird “Blue Velvet.” It doesn’t here.

Does the opening dance tie into the rest of the film? Marginally. The dance gives way to an ever-so-chic gallery opening where the same obese woman is now part of various installations. The gallery, which pedals “junk culture” as avant-garde, is run by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), whose marriage is in worse shape that the John Philip Sousa dancer. Her lawyer husband has taken a mistress to take his mind off his sham marriage and bad business deals.

While hubby ijakes away on an important “business trip,” Susan settles down to a good book. Well, an unpublished manuscript sent to her by her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a sensitive academic. The novel, titled “Nocturnal Animals,” is about a family that’s terrorized by a trio of loonies during a road trip. Sensing dad’s mounting fear, the leader badgers him as the others terrorize mom and teen daughter. Suddenly we’re in “Hot Rods to Hell” territory, and though the narrative causes Susan to tear up, it is what it is — a trashy blend of Lynch and Tobias Wolff (especially the latter’s “Desert Breakdown 1968”).

“Nocturnal Animals” is based on a novel I haven’t read by Austin Wright. Whatever the book’s virtues and failings I’ll wager it makes more sense than Ford’s stutter-step distillation, which is at once disquieting and unsatisfying. Ex-hubby’s unpublished novel, we quickly surmise, was inspired by something that happened during his marriage to Susan, almost 20 years earlier; the book is as much cathartic soul-bearing as elaborate payback.

Oddly, neither the estimable Adams nor Gyllenhaal leaves much of an impression here. Ditto, Laura Linney, miscast as Susan’s rich, disapproving mother. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the ubiquitous Michael Shannon, who according to appeared in 10 films this year, fare marginally better. Taylor-Johnson plays the leader of the road-ragers and Shannon is the novel’s woebegone cowboy detective, who initially has little use for the easily victimized husband.

Like this film, both characters seem mildly threatening but in the end just sort of fizzle out.

Our advice, forget this blunted, mostly pretentious character study-cum thriller and return to the real McCoy, the Coens’ “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men,” two blacker-than-black comedies not afraid to sustain their tone.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS ✮✮ With Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Laura Linney. Directed, adapted from the Austin Wright novel by Tom Ford. 116 min. Rated R (for nudity, violence, profanity)

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