So I recently went to see Nocturnal Animals and today’s post is going to be a reflection on that. There will be many spoilers, so if you’ve not seen it and want to go in fresh you might want to avoid this article. Or, if you’re like me and you devour everything you can before seeing a film so that you have a broader picture in your mind, please proceed.
Nocturnal Animals is the second project from Tom Ford, yes that Tom Ford. He directed, produced and created the script (it’s adapted from short story Tony & Susan) so I think it’s fair to say that this film is Tom Ford. It’s highly stylised with unflattering lighting and a grim depiction of high society LA, and there’s little use of sound to soften this world. The long shots of both urban and scarce scenery, the use of colour (or rather the lack of it), and the sense of isolation create a sinkhole which you, as the viewer, are slowly sucked into.
Told in a dual ( or triple, really) narrative, the plot begins with Susan (Amy Adams), a successful LA art gallery owner on the eve of her gallery’s latest opening. She’s alone, and the next morning we find her husband (Armie Hammer) making his excuses for not having been there. The relationship is strained. She’s not a warm woman, and she is perhaps too jaded to express herself fully. She tries to orchestrate a weekend away with her husband, but the idea is shot down as he must of course work.
Susan has also received a parcel, which turns out to be a manuscript of the finished novel ‘Nocturnal Animals’, dedicated to her, and written by her ex-husband, Edward, whom she hasn’t spoken to in nineteen years.
This is when the story splits. We see Susan’s present; where she is surrounded by a vacuous and shallow world she truly despises, with a husband who would rather engage in adultery than comfort his wife, with her own past plaguing her and as her sleep dwindles she no longer grasps reality.
We see her past; a young Susan and Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), childhood friends and crushes who meet by chance one snowy night in their twenties. Susan is shiny and youthful and idealistic. She’s a girl trying desperately to shake off the cloak of her mother’s southern belle bourgeois teachings. Edward is kind and wholesome and honest. He wears his heart on his sleeve and perhaps because Susan has none of these traits, but longs to have them, she falls for Edward. Her mother sees Edward as a poor suitor; he lacks money, but also any sense of drive and ambitions. By refusing to give her blessing, Susan’s mother only encourages her to plunge onwards and marry Edward.
And our third story line is perhaps the hardest to watch of all. This one follows Edward’s manuscript as Susan reads it, which follows Tony (also Gyllenhaal) as he goes on a road trip with his wife (Isla Fisher ) and teenage daughter across the vast nothingness of Texas.
It’s a nightmare scenario, where the family are run off the road by a trio of young troublemakers (led by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who are out for a night of causing fear and getting their kicks. What follows is a haze of terror and what is, frankly, a realistic and horrifying portrayal of how such a thing can escalate. This trio don’t use guns or a knife. They use their own insanity. Tony is not a fighter. He is well mannered and gentle and he ends up getting separated from his wife and daughter. They are in one car, with two of the men, whilst he is in a different car with the third of the trio. With the promise of being reunited with his wife and child, he drives, and is eventually forced out of the car in the middle of nowhere.
When the trio return and shout for him to come out of his hiding place, calling that his wife is asking for him, he stays put. It ultimately saves his life, but it also once again illustrates that he is weak. He is a weak man.
And so the film becomes a lattice work of these three plot lines. A young Susan who is loved by her struggling writer of a husband, Edward, but doesn’t really believe in him.
A present day Susan who no longer sleeps, who longs, who reaches out to her husband only to get nothing in return, who spends more time in her own past and the mist of regret than any person should.
And the aftermath of Tony’s abandonment in the great Texan Plains. As the police get involved and we’re introduced to the area’s detective, Bobby (Micheal Shannon), it becomes an unorthodox revenge story. The bodies of his wife and daughter are discovered, naked, having been raped and then murdered, and it seems unlikely that Tony will ever see justice.
The fictional script parallels Susan’s own relationship with Edward. As we see the young her leaving him. Her mother was right, he was too weak for her. And then we see her abort Edward’s baby also. Thus, leaving him stripped of his role as husband and of being a father before she walks out of his life in pursuit of something better.
Present version of Susan reaches out to Edward, and they agree to meet for dinner to discuss his book. We see more of her world. We see her at work. We see that for all the success she has, she is no happier, she is no more fulfilled. She is lonely.
No characters in this film show happiness. Except for Tony and his wife, which is seen at the start of their road trip before her murder. It’s a foggy happiness. This shows perhaps what Edward’s own mentality before Susan pulled the carpet from beneath his feet and broke his heart had been like. He did not expect her to betray him and leave because he wasn’t capable of that kind of darkness. It’s all the more painful when betrayal comes from nowhere. When violence comes from nowhere. When a life ruined begins as a calm, quiet, drive on a dark stretch of road.
As time passes, Detective Bobby becomes a vigilante of sorts. He’s dying of lung cancer and he wants to see things done right. Truly he doesn’t really give a shit about consequences anymore, and he’s tired of politics and legal loopholes letting sick men go free. He offers Tony revenge, justice, and redemption. He quite literally puts the gun in Tony’s hand. But, again, Tony is too weak to pull the trigger. He hates himself for this weakness. He hates himself because to be gentle wasn’t always weak, but it’s been turned into a weakness now.
As the the film hits the cathartic moment, one of the trio is shot (by Bobby, the other is already dead) and Ray, the ringleader springs free. Bobby and Tony split up and it’s Tony who finds him, sleeping, on the bed he raped his wife and daughter on in an unused caravan. Ray truly thinks himself in no danger. He provokes. He boasts. He strikes. And Tony finally acts. He shoots Ray and kills him, and is finally the man he failed to be so many times before.
In the present day, Susan is waiting in an upmarket and exclusive restaurant for Edward to show.
In the novel, Tony wakes up the following morning, blinded from a strike to the head, and staggers to his feet. Maybe by accident he shoots himself in the stomach and the novel ends with him bleeding out.
In the present day Susan waits. And waits.
So it’s a well made but ultimately grim film. The murder and rape of an innocent wife and daughter. How the consequences of these acts turn a gentle husband and father into a broken man forced to go against his own ‘weak’ nature. The reflections of each story line and their impact on another. The pursuit of happiness in youth and what happens when it’s never quite reached, decades later.
I wonder, if I am supposed to feel pity for Susan. Because I do. She was selfish in her youth, but she was also fiercely battling her own upbringing and I do believe she wanted to be the kind of woman who would be happy with Edward. But just like his need to fight his own nature, she needed to fight her own and she didn’t want to. Does that make her weaker than Edward? She doesn’t fight her own demons. Instead she aborts her future with Edward and leaves him for the easier, shinier option.
And then nineteen years later she finds herself powerful amongst her peers, respected, but she is lonely. She is still sad. In one of the flashbacks with her and Edward, he tells her how beautiful her eyes are. But that they are sad eyes, like her mother’s. She laughs it off, and distances herself from her anything to do with her mother. But they are sad eyes. And that is the one constant in this film. It’s a revenge story, and it’s a thriller and it’s a bleak look at the vanity and pretension in art. But it’s also the story of a young girl who makes a choice, in the pursuit of her own happiness, and it’s the wrong choice.
Anyway, it’s still out in cinemas so I recommend a watch. I’m still digesting. All stills are borrowed from IMDB.