If you're put off by the thought of obese naked women dancing around in slow motion, you'd best skip the opening credits of Nocturnal Animals. Beats me, though, if this sequence has anything to do with the film's themes; the women are merely part of an art installation overseen by Los Angeles gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams), filthy rich but stuck in a loveless marriage.
One day, Susan unexpectedly receives a manuscript for an upcoming novel written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), from whom she hasn't heard in 19 years. The novel is titled Nocturnal Animals – Edward's old nickname for Susan – so she decides to read it.
The novel plays out as a film-within-a-film, and indeed, Nocturnal Animals is about 75% Nocturnal Animals, a West Texas-set suspenser in which a weak-willed man named Tony (Gyllenhaal again), driving at night with his wife (Adams) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber), is accosted by three local maniacs on an empty highway and put through all kinds of hell.
In between these tense, well-plotted scenes, we occasionally cut back to Amy Adams reading. And thinking. And reading. And thinking.
Faithfully adapted from Austin Wright's novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals is basically two films: a gritty crime thriller and a dull relationship drama. Without giving anything away, the idea is that the Tony story is supposed to reflect Edward's feelings about his doomed marriage to Susan, all those years ago. (A few flashbacks with Adams and Gyllenhaal shed a little light on the couple.) But the connection is feeble. I for one didn't care anything about their relationship, since we barely see it, it only lasted a couple of years, it was a long time ago, and it didn't have much going for it in the first place. The moral of the story seems to be that Edward feels bad about the past, so he wrote a book that was sort of inspired by it, and now Susan feels bad about the past. Ho hum.
The plot isn't helped by the distracting question of just how old these characters are supposed to be, given that in real life, Adams is a youthful 42, Gyllenhaal 35, and Armie Hammer, as Susan's cold fish husband, is just 30. Yet in the film they are all meant to be the same age, presumably around 43-44. And okay, I concede that I pay more attention to this stuff than most people do.
On the plus side, Abel Korzeniowski's score is lush and stirring, Michael Shannon is good as always as a stoic Texas lawman in the Tony storyline, and the film looks sharp. It's not a complete waste of time. But the whole is definitely not as great as the sum of its parts.