The lies we tell ourselves are often more damaging than those we fashion for the people we love.
This art of personal deception is practised with elan by characters in designer Tom Ford’s second film – an impeccably tailored and gripping psychological thriller based on the novel Tony And Susan by Austin Wright.
If Ford’s impressive Oscar-nominated debut, A Single Man, was emotionally cool, Nocturnal Animals reduces the temperature to sub-zero as an unhappily married woman relives – with a shudder – the betrayal that destroyed the only loyal and openly loving person in her life.
The writer-director employs a simple yet effective film-within-a-film structure, ricocheting between metallic, minimalist reality and sun-baked, sweat-stained fiction with aplomb.
In both strands, innately good, yet tortured, protagonists reach crossroads and the agonized choices they make will gnaw at their souls for the rest of their days.
Ford’s impeccable eye for detail is in evidence in every frame and he toys repeatedly with notions of beauty as his stylish, social climber heroine reluctantly acknowledges the ugliness that lurks beneath her designer labels and flawless make-up.
Los Angeles gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) stages provocative exhibitions, which elicit coos of appreciation from her pals Alessia (Andrea Riseborough) and Carlos (Michael Sheen), but are – by her own admission – emotionally numb.
That’s also a succinct description for her marriage to philandering businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer), whose financial woes impact the gallery’s future.
Out of the blue, Susan receives a manuscript from her first husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose sweet nature and humble Texan origins jarred with her monstrous mother, Anne (Laura Linney).
“The things you love about him now, in a few years, you will hate,” sneers Anne to her daughter in a flashback.
Susan and Edward haven’t spoken in 19 years, so his communication is both intriguing and unsettling.
With Hutton away on business, Susan devours the pages of Edward’s manuscript and in her mind’s eye, she imagines Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal again), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter India (Ellie Bamber) taking a late night drive.
On an empty stretch of desert highway, the family is terrorized by Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his buddies.
Laura and India are abducted and local detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) supports Tony as the husband discovers the women’s horrifying fate.
Nocturnal Animals serves up a dish of revenge with measured restraint, bolstered by powerhouse performances from Adams and Gyllenhaal.
Buckinghamshire-born co-star Taylor-Johnson is truly menacing and Ford sadistically cranks up tension until we, like Susan, are helpless to glimpse into the heart of darkness of Edward’s manuscript.
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey creates distinct colour palettes and textures for the two narratives, including an opening credits sequence that challenges our perception of the body beautiful head-on.