Reviews of Tom Ford’s movies rarely fail to mention up top that he is a fashion designer first and a director second — as if his midcareer swerve into cinema is some kind of experiment in long-form fragrance ads, not actual filmmaking. They’re not entirely wrong; you could freeze almost any frame from his ravishing 2009 debut, A Single Man, or this year’s festival sensation Nocturnal Animals and use it to sell tiny, hideously expensive bottles of sandalwood and moondust. But focusing only on Ford’s pretty surfaces misses the visceral current of loneliness that runs through his work. Nearly every character, no matter how genetically or sartorially blessed, is desperate for human connection — not so much cosseted in luxury as numbed by it.
Like Colin Firth’s desolate 1960s professor in Single Man, Animals’ L.A. gallerist Susan (Amy Adams) is spoiled for privilege and starving for everything else: Her husband (Armie Hammer) can hardly stand to touch her, her art-world friendships are about as intimate as an air kiss, and her daughter is far away at school. So when a galley from her novelist ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), arrives in the mail, she slips between her 1,000-thread-count sheets and falls into his story: Told in interstitials, it’s a vicious cat-and-mouse involving a young family, a roving band of murderous hillbillies, and a carjacking gone wrong on a lonely Texas road. What this all has to do with Susan’s life now or her marriage to Edward isn’t immediately — or really ever — clarified, though it does allow for vivid turns by Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as the gang’s drawling, dead-eyed leader) and Michael Shannon (as a Marlboro Man sheriff with a brilliantly bone-dry line delivery).
Ford is clearly a cinephile, and elements of other auteurs are all over Animals: the sex-mad decadence of Brian De Palma, the formal control of Hitchcock, surreal dabs of David Lynch-ian grotesque. The movie’s lofty narrative ambitions never quite catch up with its aesthetics, but it’s still a fantastic beast of a film, intoxicating and strange. B+