Short Take: Nocturnal Animals

(Tom Ford, U.S., Focus Features, Opening November 18)

Tom Ford’s airless second feature tackles the deathless question of the relationship between life and art, with results that are predictably inconclusive. Following the slow-motion opening featuring mostly nude, obese women undulating at an exhibition opening, gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) expresses a displeasure that comes not from the lousy art but a more existential sense of dissatisfaction. She appears to be riding for a fall from her Hollywood Hills mansion; where she lands, however, is equally fanciful.

After receiving Nocturnal Animals, a novel written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), Susan plunges into its pulpy depths, a variation on the Deliverance plot, about a nice bourgeois family menaced by West Texas rednecks. The film offers moments of permeability, linked through synchronized sounds and gestures, between Susan reading the manuscript (in Tom Ford glasses) and the book’s lurid tale of wounded masculinity, its vigilante pursuit aided by Detective Andes (a terrific Michael Shannon). Any insight that might be gained by stacking these narratives, however, collapses under the weight of their many clichés, including mommy issues, disaffected millennials, and the removal of lipstick to suggest something like authenticity.

The film’s enigmatic ending might suggest the Möbius looping of life and art; still, sending your ex an allegorical account of your divorce in the form of a violent revenge thriller seems unnecessarily cruel. At one point, Susan confesses she’s “too cynical” to be an artist; Edward, and by extension Ford, might fit into that category as well.