'Nocturnal Animals' has a sadistic edge that is punitive

'Nocturnal' stars Amy Adams as a woman who receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal). Michael Shannon is excellent as always.

Merrick Morton/Focus Features/AP
Amy Adams in a scene from the romantic thriller, "Nocturnal Animals."

What do you say when the movie-within-the-movie is better than the movie? Let me explain. “Nocturnal Animals,” written and directed by Tom Ford, is essentially two separate films, with the better one folded inside the bad one.

The enclosing movie features Susan (Amy Adams), a tony Los Angeles art gallery owner, who is unhappily married to a Wall Street lothario (Armie Hammer). Years before, she fled her monied West Texas mother (Laura Linney) to marry Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a struggling writer. The marriage eventually dissolved, and now, 19 years later, she receives in the mail the galley manuscript of a novel written by Edward and dedicated to her.

The novel, a bloody revenge fantasy set in Texas, is called “Nocturnal Animals.” It is this novel that forms the basis of the movie-within-the-movie, with Gyllenhaal playing a father who, together with his wife (Isla Fisher) and young daughter (Ellie Bamber), is run off a deserted road by a gang of hooligans during the family's annual vacation and brutalized.

The film opens during an art gallery show, with slow-motion shots of aging, vastly overweight strippers jiggling their flesh for the patrons. A grabby intro indeed, but what does it signify? Not much, I wager. Like so much in this movie, it’s there for its shock value, but what are we being shocked into? It's sleaze posing as art.

The same could be said of the enclosed movie about the family. It's shockingly effective, all right, but there’s a sadistic edge to it that I found far more punitive than edifying. Poor Gyllenhaal, an actor who has taken some real creative chances in his nonstop career, is reduced to playing out a series of startled, aghast expressions. The only performances worth discussing are delivered by the always excellent Michael Shannon, the Texas detective who tries to set things right, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the scurviest of the marauders. Adams, as she also demonstrated in “Arrival,” is capable of playing zoned-out characters with all-too-convincing a proficiency. Grade: C (Rated R for violence, menace, graphic nudity, and language.)

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