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Amy Adams sits by a naked piece of art in Nocturnal Animals.

Set in sunny Southern California and the backroads of Texas, Nocturnal Animals is nevertheless a piece of work that will chill you to your bone marrow. Adapted from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, the film soft-pedals the book’s metafictional musings on the act of reading and instead concentrates on depicting a toxic marriage whose fallout is still causing damage decades later. The result is a slow-acting poison pill of a movie, brutal and effective.

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an L.A. art gallery owner who suddenly hears from Edward Sheffield (a clean-shaven Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband whom she hasn’t spoken to in 19 years. After years as a failed writer, Edward has now finally finished a novel and sent her the manuscript before it’s published. As Susan reads, we see the plot of the book, which shares the same title as the movie, play out. It’s a dark, violent thriller about a Texas professor named Tony (a bearded Gyllenhaal) who seeks revenge on the criminals who destroyed his life. The weak, ineffectual Tony may be Edward’s devastating portrait of himself, but the book is aimed squarely at Susan. It’s dedicated to her, its title comes from Edward’s teasing nickname for her and her terrible insomnia, and the whole plot is set up as payback for something that Susan did while they were married. Recognizing this, Susan calls her past misdeed “unforgivable.” Maybe and maybe not, but it’s pretty bad all the same.

This is the second film by Tom Ford, the internationally renowned menswear designer from Austin who made such a striking filmmaking debut seven years ago with A Single Man. He starts this movie off with a shock, as the opening credits are projected over a montage of naked, morbidly obese women dancing in slow motion amid a shower of confetti while wearing patriotically colored hats and boots. It’s a sign of what’s to come — Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography and Abel Korzeniowski’s music may be things to luxuriate in, but what the movie reveals won’t be pretty. Cutely, the movie segues from this opening to a shot of those same women lying on stone slabs as part of an art installation while Susan sits demurely perched on one of the slabs, assiduously taking notes.

Reading Edward’s novel, Susan can’t help but notice that the character of Tony’s wife (Isla Fisher), who winds up raped and beaten to death in mid-story, shares Susan’s red hair and penchant for wearing crucifixes. However, Edward’s retribution is far subtler than that. The book’s very existence is a rebuke to Susan’s lack of faith in him as a writer, but the way the thriller plot unfolds demonstrates what an empty sham her life has become, childless, married to a boorish venture capitalist (Armie Hammer) who cheats on her, living in a joylessly minimalist mansion, and going about her job so dispassionately that she fails to recognize paintings that she herself purchased. A filmmaker who pays close attention to his actors’ appearances, Ford cloaks Susan in haute couture outfits and way too much eye makeup, and it serves as armor for a character.

Speaking of those actors, Nocturnal Animals features an incisive turn from Michael Shannon as a sheriff dying of smoker’s hack and a bizarre misstep involving Laura Linney as Susan’s mother, a Texas society matron who feels like an obsolete caricature, with her big hair and fur coat and hatred of New York and gay people. Still, this movie is proof positive that Adams is mighty and shall prevail. You might be surprised to find such a likable actress at the center of such darkness and evil, but the bitter cold of this movie radiates directly from her and her depiction of a woman who made herself over into a ruthless, unemotional West Coast arts maven as a way of fleeing her Texas roots and her inability or unwillingness to do her own creative work. I could have wished for the greater emotional impact that A Single Man had, and yet Ford’s second effort is a ferocious enigma, disturbing and untameable and hard not to approach even if you suspect you might get mauled.

Nocturnal Animals
Starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal. Written and directed by Tom Ford, based on Austin Wright’s novel. Rated R.

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