The opening credits of Nocturnal Animals feature several obese women, naked but for drum majorette hats, dancing in slow motion. Nothing that resembles this ever happens anywhere else in the whole movie. I can think of a few different explanations for why director Tom Ford would have seen fit to include this, none of which reflect well on him, most of which involve the assumption that slow-motion naked fat women are ipso facto repulsive beyond the means of language to describe it.

That's probably right, then; Nocturnal Animals is animated by a largely morbid revulsion at human beings that has disguised itself in a thick lacquer of outlandishly beautiful Seamus McGarvey cinematography. And it is a beautiful movie, with a lengthy nighttime sequence about a quarter of the way through that keeps providing one powerhouse frame after another. There is, mind you, absolutely no connection between the beauty of these images and anything else in the movie; they are pretty for the sake of being pretty. Compared to this, The Neon Demon is a model for thematically tight, narratively-motivated imagery.

We are, in short, right back in the territory of The Fashion Designer Who Wanted to Direct, seven years after Ford demonstrated a virtually complete lack of any understanding of how human beings think or feel in A Single Man. Nocturnal Animals does the job of erasing that "virtually"; A Single Man at least had convincing homoeroticism, while this film about a sexless straight woman has nothing at all. The layers-upon-layers plot finds book editor Susan Morrow (Amy Adams, choking to death), bored with the high-class New York art scene and barely on speaking terms with her asshole husband Hutton (Armie Hammer, fully a decade too young for the demands of the part), receiving the manuscript to her ex-husband's novel, Nocturnal Animals. Reading it, she discovers that he's based the material on their relationship, or maybe that's just how she interprets it: we see in great detail the imagery she conjures up as she reads the grotty tale of Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose wife Laura (Isla Fisher, looking enormously like Adams) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are raped and killed by a redneck drifter, Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, playing Yosemite Sam). This drives him to revenge, with the aid of the increasingly lawless lawman Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). While growing increasingly entangled with the narrative, Susan starts to flash back to her happier days with Edward, her ex, who is also played by Gyllenhaal.

There's something in this, though less than Ford (who also adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright's novel Tony and Susan) thinks there is - the "character reads themselves into a work of art" thing isn't exactly new (for a more sustained and prettier incarnation of mostly the same idea, I'd point you all to the wonderful and criminally underrated The Fall) It's been decades since "ennui of the idle rich" movies have had any real meat on their bones, and Nocturnal Animals is additionally hobbled by the generally inert performances - an Antonioni film this ain't, though it's crying out for that kind of icy control. Shannon is the solitary bright spot in the cast, and to be clear, he's really great, playing his Western-ish sheriff with a kind of helpless morbid curiosity about the sordid affair he's gotten involved with, driven less by a sense of justice than a sense of repulsed fascination. Which is exactly the correct attitude to adopt to the narrative within the book, which feels less like literary fiction and more like a particularly tawdry attempt to ape Cormac McCarthy.

Still, credit where it's due: Ford turns out to be kind of an outstanding thriller director, and the parts of the movie where it is the most focused on boilerplate genre theatrics are easily the most entertaining, exciting, and all-around well-made. If only the film wasn't so way the hell up its own ass with metanarrative shenanigans that are only fitfully interesting and never emotionally resonant, and just committed to celebrating the tacky viciousness of the story-within-the-story, this might even be a fun, stylish, disreputable thriller. Ford sure as hell knows how to assemble a striking frame, after all. Damn pity he can't pace a story or dissect a character worth a damn.