Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art dealer and gallery owner who has just seen her latest show go down very well with the cognoscenti, but recently she has not been sleeping well, and wonders if this is something to do with her personal life rather than her professional one, which is going swimmingly, after all. She is married to Hutton (Armie Hammer) who provides her with everything she needs, but her previous marriage to Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) is lingering on her mind, it did not end well and she feels guilty for breaking it off with him, especially when Tony, a budding writer, was floundering at that point and could have done with a rock in his life to help him pull through. But then she receives a manuscript in the post from him...
They have not spoken in around twenty years, so obviously Susan is intrigued, and does what presumably everyone who knows a writer does when faced with their work, she starts to look for clues in their output that would indicate how they really feel about those they know, or knew in the case of her. The old Fleetwood Mac line "Don't ask me what I think of you, I might not give the answer that you want me to" sprang to mind, in that director Tom Ford, adapting Austin Wright's novel, strongly suggested you're better off not delving too deeply into such efforts, especially when the subject matter could be less than salubrious, which is the problem Susan finds when she reads that manuscript.
Since she cannot sleep, it serves as perfect bedtime reading, although if she could not sleep before there's little chance of her sleeping after a few chapters of Tony's attempt to be Jim Thompson with his crime yarn. We may not see him in Susan's current life, he's still keeping his distance, but Gyllenhaal played in flashbacks to we could perceive where and when things went awry for the couple, and more significantly, we see the actor play the protagonist of the book, called Nocturnal Animals. Whether this was how Ford saw him, or how his ex-wife was seeing him, or how the audience was supposed to envisage the character, or even all three, was murky to an extent, but it was clear we were intended to draw parallels with real life and the page.
The "real life" as depicted in fiction by Ford, that was, and maybe not so much the real life as the audience would experience it: this was meta in some ways, but in others it was a rather airless character study woken up by the thriller elements of the book within the film. One issue with that was Tony was obviously meant to have proved Susan's lack of faith wrong and conjured up a masterpiece, and when something in a movie is presented as such you are more likely to find yourself picking flaws in it as there was a whiff of arrogance on the part of the filmmakers to make that judgement without the audience in necessary agreement. As it plays, Tony's tale starts strongly with a traumatic act, yet peters out before the end, playing the Straw Dogs card of a weak central male finding his mettle and acting violently to do so. It could be you found that satisfying, it could be you preferred to leave all that macho man business back in the nineteen-seventies, but the point was that Tony had found his mettle too.
He was managing to stand up to the woman he loved but had rejected him and apparently taken him two decades to recover from. Adams did not play the wife of the Tony surrogate in his novel, but the deliberately not dissimilar Isla Fisher did, which represented some form of vengeance for the author after what happens to her - or what fate he contrives for her. Fiction writers often have to think up all sorts of terrible things to inflict on their characters to keep the readers turning the pages (or not reaching for the off switch), so if you had ever pondered that these folks were weirdos, and passive aggressive ones at that, for acting out their darkest fantasies in fiction, then Nocturnal Animals would have a plenty to say to you. Obviously writers channel their experiences into their efforts, but if you believed they were not score-settling but servicing their readers with a story to divert them with escapism, or alternatively make them think about a subject in a profound manner, give give give, basically, you would be sceptical at the Tony character's integrity. There are different writers for different stories, naturally, and this one was getting something unlovely out of his system, yet was not brave enough to confront his demons in reality. Leave him to it. Music by Abel Korzeniowski.