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Movie review: Strange, shocking ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is hard to pin down

Amy Adams in “Nocturnal Animals.” (Focus Features / Focus Features)
Amy Adams in “Nocturnal Animals.” (Focus Features / Focus Features)
By Moira Macdonald Seattle Times

I’ve now seen Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” twice, and I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it. I do know that, even on Round 2, I was never bored.

Shinier and more heavy-handed than the writer/director’s beautifully subtle 2009 debut, “A Single Man,” “Nocturnal Animals” feels like a very modern, very languid and very strange film noir. It has moments of shocking violence and near-unbearable menace, and moments in which we simply stare into the expressive ocean of Amy Adams’ eyes. At times, it makes its audience deeply uncomfortable (such as a very naked opening sequence that seems, awkwardly, to be commenting on the excesses of modern art and on the movie’s own obsession with surfaces). At times, its saturated colors and melancholy light are as beautiful as an Edward Hopper painting.

Adams plays the central character Susan, an unhappy Los Angeles gallery owner with a cheating husband (Armie Hammer) and a bitter ex (Jake Gyllenhaal) who one day sends her a manuscript of his new novel. As Susan reads the novel, it becomes a movie within the movie, in which a family (Gyllenhaal plays the father) is terrorized by a group of men they encounter while driving a deserted Texas highway late at night – and Susan, mesmerized and horrified, becomes drawn back into her own past.

None of this adds up to very much dramatically, but it’s uncanny how Adams can make us care about this generally unlikable, shallow character, and how Michael Shannon (brilliantly playing a detective in the novel/movie) completely defines his character with his laconic delivery of the line, “I look into things around here.” The music – a shimmering, old-school score by Abel Korzeniowski – wraps around you like perfume, and you find yourself weirdly compelled by the ice melting in a glass of scotch at an unoccupied table.

“Nocturnal Animals” is, I think, a beautiful mess, but I might have to watch it again to be sure.

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