Bad, bad Tom Ford! The restraint this once and future fashion designer showed when he first dropped into directing movies, with his heart-piercing 2009 adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel “A Single Man,” gets tossed to the wind in the opening frames of “Nocturnal Animals.” In slow-motion close-up, three grotesquely obese women dance in the nude, the camera rapturously capturing their undulating waves of flesh.
Turns out it’s an art installation. So’s the rest of the movie, sort of: a stylish, sadistic head-trip that riffs on subjects of romantic betrayal and long-delayed revenge. The movie works unnervingly well in its individual scenes, but it’s a coffee-table book of a nightmare, easy to admire, easy to close the cover on.
Amy Adams stars — a different Amy Adams than the winsome brainiac of “Arrival.” This one, Susan by name, is a bourgeois Los Angeles art dealer, married to a well-dressed cad (Armie Hammer) and living in what looks like Frank Gehry’s idea of Hitler’s bunker. Susan’s makeup is too heavy and too precise, and her clothes place her geometrically into her surroundings. We get it: She’s a chilly pill.
Susan receives a manuscript in the mail from a long ago ex-husband, a novel dedicated to her. She starts to read and “Nocturnal Animals” shifts into a nightmare parable about Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Texas academic like her ex, on a brutally interrupted road trip with his wife (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber). The sequences, intercut with Susan’s increasingly horrified reactions, are every civilized husband and father’s worst-case scenario, and the movie dramatizes them with elegant, surgical dispassion.
Does it matter that Susan and Tony’s wife and daughter are all identical-looking redheads? Well, duh. Doublings and mirror images abound in “Nocturnal Animals.” Flashbacks and present-day sequences entwine around fictional scenes until Ford has us trapped in a web of guilty complicity. Like Hitchcock, certainly, and it’s no coincidence that Abel Korzeniowski’s musical score swoons like vintage Bernard Herrmann (or like Pino Donaggio’s Herrmannesque scores for Brian DePalma’s 1970s thrillers).
Is Tom Ford a dilettante? Honestly, the jury’s still out. He gets committed work from his cast; even if Adams is arguably miscast in a coldhearted role (yes, she can do anything, but that doesn’t mean she should have to), Gyllenhaal expertly toggles between “Straw Dogs” meekness and madness, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson is the sexiest black hole of irredeemable evil in many a moon. And when Michael Shannon turns up as Bobby Andes, a lethal West Texas police detective, Ford guides the actor to one of his scariest and most controlled performances.
Yet with Ford — and unlike Hitchcock (and, at his best, DePalma) — the mystery stays on the surface, caught in Seamus McGarvey’s clinically composed camera shots and Joan Sobel’s impeccably disorienting editing. The “solution,” or the one that’s implied in the film’s final scene, feels small and incommensurate with the dark places the rest of the movie takes us, and it may occur to you that what concerns this filmmaker is the immediate effect rather than the lasting impression. I don’t mean it as a cheap shot, but “Nocturnal Animals” is very like an exquisitely rendered window display. It’s something at which you pause and peer into and catch your breath — and then move on.
Written and directed by Tom Ford, based on a novel by Austin Wright. Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson. At Kendall Square. 116 minutes. R (violence, menace, graphic nudity, language).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.