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Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s thriller which twists three plots is a well-performed intellectual exercise that lacks emotional engagement

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Unhappily married art-gallery owner Susan (Amy Adams) receives a book manuscript in the mail, a novel penned by her estranged ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal); the book is dedicated to her, and there’s a note that suggests they meet. So Susan, who doesn’t sleep well — she is among the titular nocturnal animals — stays up late to read it, opening up the film’s story within a story.

The novel’s tale is a holiday from hell — a gritty version of a generic B-movie in which roadside thugs kidnap and abuse a family on a lonesome West Texas highway. Dad Tony (also Gyllenhaal) can’t save his wife (Adams’ look-alike Isla Fisher) or their teenage daughter, which prompts an increasingly dark and violent revenge set-up. (You know it’s twisted when Michael Shannon shows up to play a lawman literally rotting from the inside out.)

Susan’s compulsive reading of the novel opens up a third plot in which she recalls her long-ago failed relationship with Edward, whom she rejected for his weakness. But as the Tony character takes a different path when his manhood is questioned, the blurring of these lines is enough for Susan to reconsider her former actions, and perhaps take fresh ones.

Nocturnal is a disappointing follow-up to director Tom Ford’s debut, the elegant and understated A Single Man. It is fantastic to look at, but its cross-story themes are too oblique at times. (It builds to a climax so low-key you might miss its import.) As a well-performed intellectual exercise, it holds one’s attention, especially if you don’t mind its more baroque touches and odd shifts in tone, but it lacks emotional engagement. After filleting the protagonists to expose their vulnerabilities, Ford seems content to view them with the same detached bemusement as he does the overweight go-go dancers the film brazenly opens with.

Starts Fri., Dec. 9.

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