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Image: Focus Features

Against the opening credits, nude women joyfully gyrate in slow motion. Their obese bodies surge and swell with the weight of ocean waves. One twirls a baton, others shake pompoms or hoist sparklers. Each is on her own stage, flanked by crimson-red curtains while patrons roam the gallery. Is it art or empty provocation?

Susan (Amy Adams), the gallery’s owner, isn’t fooled. Lamenting the superficiality of her clinically hip milieu, she quietly seethes with contempt. Her house is all straight lines—a hyper-modern cube; her husband looks like Patrick Bateman and her friends wear something like “ironic chic” or a surgically altered, physiological approximation.

So when she gets her hands on her ex’s soon-to-published manuscript, of course it bites back with a sharp papercut—finally, something real. But Susan has no idea just how real this thing is; as she dives in, we’re suddenly thrust halfway across the country. In Dallas (in the novel), Tony (played by a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal) packs his wife (Isla Fisher, looking suspiciously like Adams) and teenage daughter into a car. By nightfall, they’re deep in the moonless Mars-scape of West Texas, guided only by the glare of headlights. The daughter complains about the reception. “That’s what I love about West Texas,” Tony intones. “No phones, no people.” Cue a pair of crimson-red brake lights on the horizon.

What plays out is more than superficially horrific. It’s so tense, in fact, that it jolts Susan in reflex (as if people recoil when reading something scary) and jolts us from one “reality” to another to another. Back in her antiseptic scene, Susan conjures memories of her ex (Gyllenhaal again, sans beard) and their courtship. Firmly in Susan’s head, we’re never on firm ground; a glance at a fireplace, for example, might send us back to her college days or that Texas wasteland, where the movie really comes alive thanks to Michael Shannon (having a banner year) as a small town sheriff who “looks into things around here.”

Nocturnal Animals is an ugly beast, but it never sheds its arch chill. That second-hand remove imbues its provocative gestures with an unearned smugness that feels especially false in the wake of the similarly icy and far superior The Neon Demon. (Jena Malone, back in Valley-zombie mode, nearly steals the movie with her delivery of a single line.) But of all of the movie’s postures, its retrograde dissection of gender roles bends from playful contrarianism into outright bunk. In its attempt to approximate David Lynch doing Sam Peckinpah with an assist from Nicholas Roeg, Nocturnal Animals reveals its own naked vacuity. Where their provocations couldn’t be more sincere, this one’s just another accessory in its own artful pose.

Nocturnal Animals. Written and directed by Tom Ford. Starring Amy Adam, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Michael Shannon. Opens in Kansas City on December 9, 2016.

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