The bad breakup of a relationship, even one without violence, may not rise to the intense level of PTSD, but the lingering effects can tenaciously haunt a person. That's the central conceit of "Nocturnal Animals," a moody and deeply unsettling look at a pair of failed relationships, regrets and recriminations, and measures of emotional violence -- oh, shall we call it "lashing out?" -- symbolized in physical violence.
For his sophomore cinematic effort, writer-director Tom Ford ("A Single Man") adapts the critically acclaimed novel "Tony and Susan." Following that novel's lines fairly closely, Ford introduces us to trendy L.A. art gallery owner Susan Morrow (a nuanced Amy Adams). In her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer), she has "appropriate" arm candy but a lack of emotional satisfaction, and he clearly feels the same. Following a boffo opening of pretentious art (whose meaning seems to be the last concern of anyone, gallery employees or guests), Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal, tender and searing in turns).
When Susan sits down to read the novel -- titled "Nocturnal Animals" and dedicated to Susan -- Ford shows us its contents, as Susan experiences them in her mind. This story within a story concerns a family on a road trip through West Texas: marrieds Tony (played, pointedly, by Gyllenhaal) and Laura Hastings (Isla Fisher), and their teenage daughter, India (Ellie Bamber). On a two-lane highway, by dead of night, the family encounters a gang of toughs, led by psychopathic Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The next day, Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon, again blindingly brilliant) turns up to help locate the gang and make them pay for what they have done.
This manuscript clearly presses buttons for Susan, who begins sifting through the evidence of her own failed marriage to Edward. Ford's "Nocturnal Animals," then, is also about art: when it means something and matters, where its wellsprings are located, and its potential to provoke reflection, enlighten and sting. Parallels emerge between the manuscript and real life, such as the class tensions between the Hastings (in their old Mercedes) and the criminals they encounter, who behave not unlike the toothless backwoods-ers of "Deliverance."
In real life, Susan's every-hair-in-place matriarch ("mother" seems insufficient), played by Laura Linney, looks down her nose at Edward for having a financially irresponsible dream of pursuing writing, and plants that fear in her daughter. In our real life, the initial mass-market of the paperback edition of "Tony and Susan" sold poorly, assumptively because it was "too literary." With his mass-media adaptation, Ford may have better luck. Certainly, he has given audiences that rare post-milennial film that demands post-game discussion.