Nocturnal Animals contains two very different films within it. The one of the past and the present is operating at a level that Ford proved he was capable of in A Single Man, a world of subtext and swallowed feelings amongst the upper class and elites. The fictional one contains a level of intensity that approaches the Tarantin-ian, as long scenes play out slowly and irrevocably before erupting in violence and trauma. This is Ford trying on a new suit, and it fits extremely well. The rawness of the fictional world is a jarring counterpoint to the steeliness of the rest of the film, a contrast that extends beyond the story mechanics and into the set design and the cinematography. The modern architecture and sharp corners of the present bear no resemblance to the corrosion of the fictional, and the pounding sun of the novel's setting seems like it's on a different planet from the dimly-lit gray of Susan's world. Each section of Nocturnal Animals could sustain its own feature length film, and Ford's ability to stitch these disparate parts together is no mean feat.
That being said, if Nocturnal Animals was split into three films, I would be far more interested in some of those than others. The early relationship travails of Susan and Edward, torn by aspirational pressures, would make a fine romantic drama, especially with the wickedly imperious Linney playing an antagonistic role. The Western revenge story is not the most original, but Ford and his cast bring degraded life to it. Gyllenhaal's physical and mental decay throughout must have been what it was like to watch him get into character for his Nightcrawler role, and with a slimy Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing a villain and the ever-reliable Michael Shannon playing the lawman helping Gyllenhaal get his revenge, that's a watchable film, though one that's slightly retrograde with its dead women motivators.
The last version, an internal affair where Susan weighs her present against her past, would be acceptable if not for the world it's set in. Nocturnal Animals begins with a montage of obese, middle-aged naked women gyrating in slow-motion while the opening credits go by. While the viewer puzzles over what's happening, it's revealed that this is a video exhibit at Susan's gallery, and the naked models themselves are lying on display tables in the gallery while the wealthy patrons glide around the room with their canapes and their cocktails and compliment each other on how daring the whole thing is. One could go in circles indefinitely deciding whether Ford is mocking this type of objectification, or he thinks it's legitimate art celebrating the human body in all its forms, but it's not like any similarly sized women are actually given speaking parts. Congratulations, you began your film with obese women dancing nude, did any of them stand a chance during the audition process? I just don't have any patience for the world of high art and the ridiculous people that populate it. Additional characters played by Jena Malone and Kristin Bauer von Straten are too pretentious and insufferable to bear, and an entire film cast with their ilk would be unbearable. Lastly, the transitions in this setting are repeatedly marked by Susan closing Edward's novel after a particularly intense scene, and there are only so many ways that Adams can play it.
As is, Nocturnal Animals' different settings and tones work well together. The unifying thread is how to feel about Edward in his different stages, from the aimless to the emasculated to the enigmatic. In so many films about masculinity, the character doing the judging is almost always another male. Nocturnal Animals makes Susan its judge as she decides whether or not she can be with someone who doesn't stand up to what she thinks a man should be. Her younger self measured it in resource accumulation, a skill that Hutton has far beyond Edward, but her older self has perhaps reevaluated, preferring the life of the mind to the cold comfort she now lives in. In between is the fictional version of Edward, a man robbed of women he was tasked with protecting and now in a primal battle to violently reassert his place in the natural world. It's a tidy tale that is dragged down by the world that Susan lives in, a world that admittedly rage-blinds this viewer a little bit, even if Ford is taking a satirical view. With his newly-apparent cinematic talents on top of the ones it was already known he has, Ford is ever the renaissance man. Maybe just keep the art world far away from the next film. B-