The film, based on Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan, unfolds in three interlocking strands: Fancy-pants gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), living a life of chilly comfort with her unfaithful husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), receives the manuscript of a novel written by her ex Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). The book he’s written offers the second strand, telling the grisly story of Tony (Gyllenhaal, again), a Texas man who’s on a road trip with his beautiful wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) when they’re accosted by a carload of rednecks on an empty stretch of highway in West Texas.
The men — led by preening, psychotic good ol’ boy Ray (an unrecognizable Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — first terrorize and toy with the family, then beat Tony and take the two women away. As Susan reads all this, enraptured, she’s reminded of her early days with Edward, whom she’d known since they were kids. This is the third strand; looking back on their brief, doomed romance, she recalls how her wealthy, conservative Texas family didn’t want her marrying him. “He is too weak for you,” we see her unforgiving mother (Laura Linney) warn over a martini lunch. “He is a romantic, but he is also fragile … The things you love about him now are the things you’ll hate in a few years.”
Reading in the tub, in the bed, in the living room, Susan is pulled further and further into the horrific turns of Edward’s novel. (Quite a bit of this movie involves watching Amy Adams quietly reading a book, and that’s genuinely hypnotic.) This fictional narrative — what happened to Tony’s wife and child, and the involvement of a gruff, tough-talking Texas lawman (Michael Shannon, broad and gruff and hilarious) — eventually takes over the movie, with Ford milking every bit of suspense from the tragic, enraging tale. Through a steady drumbeat of flashbacks, we also learn what happened to Susan and Edward’s earlier relationship and drove them apart. I’m not giving much away by noting that Susan’s judgmental, high-society mom doesn’t turn out to have been so wrong after all.
There are, of course, resonances among the strands. Edward and Tony are played by the same actor; are they, perhaps, meant to be the same person? A lush red couch pops up at key moments of cruelty — be it physical, or emotional — in different story threads. There’s an odd focus on bodily functions throughout Tony’s story, as if to offset the gray, antiseptic cool of Susan’s world. Also hauntingly evocative is the fact that Tony’s wife in the fictional narrative is played by Isla Fisher, an actress whose resemblance to Adams has prompted me more than once to refer to her as “alternate universe Amy Adams.” Ford delights in playing with all these connections, but he also loves misleading us. Because who really corresponds to whom, in this schema? We don’t know these people at first, so it’s easy to think early on that Edward’s novel relays some sort of autobiographical experience, and that Adams and Fisher are just playing variations on the same woman. But that would underestimate the levels of hurt and blame built into Edward’s story, and the emotional corrosiveness with which it expands out; the narrative in his book itself doesn’t twist so much, but our identification does.
We’ve seen lots of layered fictional narratives, in film and literature, that create correspondences between art and artist. What makes Nocturnal Animals so striking is how it all winds up focusing on the accusation that was hurled at both Edward and Tony — that they’re too “weak” and that they’re not driven or tough enough — and the unlikely ways that both men find to take revenge on those who wronged them. It’s kind of petty, when you really think about it — all this sturm und drang over the juvenile notion of being too soft. In that sense, Nocturnal Animals, for all the refinement of its storytelling, its elegantly framed settings, feels at times like the work of a wounded teenager. But that, I think, is also partly the point. Ford has given us a surprisingly candid peek into the creative process, into the strange little hurts — perceived or real, toxic or justified — that make up the soul of an artist. No, we may not like what we find in there. But I’m not sure he does, either.