Tom Ford's second feature film opens with a minute or two of full frontal female nudity, though not of quite the same kind that attracted criticism when he was advertising his debut fragrance in 2007. Rather than perfect, glistening bodies shot by Terry Richardson, these are elderly, overweight burlesque dancers, wobbling in slow motion in a hail of gaudy glitter.
It is, we soon discover, part of a fatuous art exhibition put on by gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), one of the lead characters in this engrossing thriller in which Ford takes the story from Austin Wright's 1993 novel Tony and Susan and fuses it with a deliciously caustic and occasionally very witty break up letter to his former life as the world's leading fashion designer.
But back to the story, which requires some explanation. Susan is beautiful, wealthy and trapped - both in a loveless marriage with a neglectful suit (Armie Hammer) and an industry she is growing increasingly disillusioned with. One day she receives the manuscript of a soon-to-be published novel written by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has dedicated it to her.
We learn that Edward was Susan's university lover, a sensitive, romantic writer whom she lost faith in and divorced in cruel circumstances after only a couple of years. Susan begins reading the novel – a violent thriller that we see unfold in her imagination, in which a weak-willed man is attacked while driving through the Texan wilderness with his wife and daughter before setting out to find the perpetrators with the help of a local sheriff (Michael Shannon). Is the book a symbolic revenge fantasy? Or worst – a direct threat? And what will happen when – as Edward requests – Susan meets him again for the first time in twenty years?
There are three strands to the film: Susan's 'real life' – in which Ford revels in drawing parallels between the vacuity and cattiness of the modern art and fashion worlds in some brilliantly entertaining scenes – her reading of the book (in which Gyllenhaal – or 'Edward' - also appears as the protagonist and the daughter is also Susan's daughter, both played by Ellie Bamber), and a series of flashbacks to Susan's past.
Ford cleverly charts a course through these layers, gradually building tension while still giving the plot room to breath and develop. It's confident stuff, coupled with the kind of visual flair he exhibited in his lauded debut A Single Man. The Texan scenes have a rich, Coen Brothers-esque quality that made me think of a slightly pulpy No Country For Old Men, while Susan's life at the pinnacle of the art world is as cold and perfect as a giant block of ice at a fashion show after party no one really wants to be at.
But it's the flashback scenes that elevate Nocturnal Animals from a stylish but somewhat empty exercise – the criticism levelled, somewhat unfairly, at A Single Man - to something richer. As we learn more about Susan and Edward's relationship, her reading of his novel takes on greater nuance, as does ours. It's a reminder that no book – or film for that matter – is the same in the minds of any two people, that our own lives and experiences are collaborators. Beneath its cynicism, there is paean to the power of narrative fiction buried in Nocturnal Animals. Edward's prose – described in the film as 'powerful', though we are invited to question its literary worth at points – provokes Susan to reexamine the emotional fabric of her life and past in a way that some 'provocative' films of old, naked dancing ladies (or provocative aftershave adverts for that matter) never quite will.
Amy Adams – easily one of the most magnetic actresses working today – is excellent, while Gyllenhaal is more convincing as the sexy but overly sensitive ex-husband than he is as the same man's pathetic protagonist. Michael Shannon is on great form and gets the best lines as the detective with nothing to lose.
But the most interesting character here is easily Ford himself: a man in the midst of a fascinating creative metamorphosis. Still only 55 years old, it's too early to tell if he'll have anything like the impact on cinema that he had on fashion, but he's certainly heading in the right direction.