Nocturnal Animals (directed by Tom Ford) is told through the perspective of a woman named Susan (Amy Adams) as she remembers a failed marriage to a then-struggling author. The film’s title comes from a book of the same title that Susan’s ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends to her to read before the book’s mass publication.
When they were together, as young adults after grad school, Edward called Susan a nocturnal animal. She has trouble sleeping, and there is always something stressing her out or making her unhappy. Well, maybe it wasn’t always that way, but it seems like it is.
There are multiple time periods in this film, one of them fictional within the fictional world of the film. First, we meet present day Susan. She is wealthy (moreso on the surface than in reality) and married to a handsome business man (Armie Hammer). Susan owns an art gallery, and the film opens with one of her exhibitions, full of overweight nude women dancing. It seems like a moderate success, but to her it’s a complete failure. To make things worse, her absent-minded husband didn’t bother showing up or even asking how it went. It’s clear from the start that their marriage isn’t going all that well.
Susan is very upfront about her feelings, even telling her sister-in-law how unhappy she is. Susan is a very cerebral character, analyzing everything as it happens or has happened. She’s unhappy, she knows it, but she doesn’t know what to do about it. Early in the movie, this feels something like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in which we followed Sean Penn’s character’s misery, leading him to reflect on his childhood.
Susan similarly reflects on her youth, but it’s only brought about by the book he sends her. As Susan begins to read Nocturnal Animals, the movie shifts and depicts the story onscreen. Suddenly we’re introduced to Tony (Gyllenhaal), his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and his daughter India (Ellie Bamber). Laura, like Susan, is a redhead, and we immediately suspect that this story is based on something that happened between Susan and Edward in real life. We know something dramatic happened between them that led to their divorce, but we’re not sure what it is.
Also, the movie doesn’t tell us who Edward is or what he looks like. With Tony being played by Gyllenhaal, it’s safe to assume that Edward is also played by Gyllenhaal, but at this point we have not seen him. It’s only a little later on that we begin to flashback to when Edward and Susan met and fell in love. Then we see younger-looking Gyllenhaal.
This is all to say that the characters in the novel are projections in Susan’s mind. They may have their own physical descriptions to some extent, but Susan pictures her ex-husband as the main character. Later in the film, in one of the flashbacks, we see her telling Edward that his stories are always about him, so it makes sense that she pictures him as the main character. But she doesn’t picture herself as the wife, even though the wife looks similar to her.
Anyways, in the novel, Tony and his wife and daughter are going camping somewhere in West Texas. They have no cell reception, and they drive in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly they’re harassed by a car of three rowdy men, led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Then men run them off the road, then they drive away in Tony’s car with his wife and daughter. Another man, Lou, forces Tony to drive with him to meet them. This is the last time Tony sees his family as they are brutally abused and murdered.
Lou kicks Tony out of the car in the middle of god knows where, and he runs for his life. Soon after, Ray and Lou return to look for Tony, but he hides and evades them. The next morning he tracks down the police, led by Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon). They look for Tony’s wife and daughter only to find their dead bodies.
The story moves quickly through time (over a year) until they arrest Lou and then locate Ray. When Ray is released due to a lack of substantial evidence, Bobby tells Tony that he’s dying, and, basically, he’s willing to go beyond the law because he’s sick of letting criminals walk. One thing leads to another, Bobby shoots Lou, and Tony shoots Ray but still gets brutally whacked across the head. The next morning Tony dies. Everyone dies.
So we jump between that story and the present and Susan’s memory of Edward. When they met, everything was perfect. Edward is a sensitive, kind young aspiring author who works at a bookstore while Susan’s parents expect her to live a certain type of life (read: upscale). Susan’s mother dismisses Edward, and this pisses off Susan who wants to be nothing like her mother. Of course, when we first meet Susan years later, she is like her mother.
Later as Susan recalls her marriage with Edward, we see that a rift forms between them about the type of life they lead together. In other words, Susan shows signs that she wants a more stable, affluent lifestyle while Edward is okay working at a bookstore and trying to become a writer. Couple this with Susan meeting her future second husband, and things don’t last much longer. The unforgivable incident that has been teased to the audience turns out to be Susan getting an abortion (of Edward’s child) without telling him. Of course he finds out and is horrified. The last time we see Edward onscreen is when he discovers she had an abortion without notifying him.
Present day Susan continues to struggle to sleep and she’s miserable. She’s alone, really, and this is emphasized more by her large house, with space for a thousand people yet empty except for her.
She has a brief correspondence with Edward over email, and they agree to meet for dinner. Susan dresses up for the dinner, but she removes a little make up, as if to look more like she did when she was with him. She waits for him to arrive, but he never does.
So we never see Edward as he really is. We only see him though what Susan remembers and through the story she reads. Everything is filtered through her mind. Edward is painted as this nice guy who is really sensitive and who is hurt by what she did to him. All we can really know about Edward is the story he writes. In an email written to him, Susan says that the story is both violent and sad, which it is.
That’s because he’s hurt, and the entire thing is influenced by how he feels Susan treated him. When the first altercation begins in the novel, I felt like the daughter was going to die, and we would learn that they divorced after they lost a child (which does turn out to be the case…), but we also learn that Susan does have a daughter, presumably with her second husband though that’s not certain.
So when Tony finds both his daughter and his wife dead, it tells us this is all fiction but it’s based on something. It’s so violent but also so on the nose in that the wife is supposed to be Susan. That’s bold, to send an ex a story you wrote in which the character based on her is brutally slaughtered.
But maybe it’s not based on her. It probably is, but again, everything is filtered through her perspective. In a flashback we get that scene in which Susan tells Edward everything he writes is about himself, but that’s how she remembers it. Maybe he only writes about himself or maybe he doesn’t. And anyways, that was 15-20 (or more) years ago, so maybe Edward really took her advice and doesn’t write about himself anymore. Maybe Susan reads into the story so much because everything in her life is about her. Maybe it’s all triggered by the “For Susan” she sees at the start of the book.
So with Tony portraying a dead daughter and dead wife, he’s saying something to Susan about how he feels about their marriage. This makes Tony come off as vindictive and a bit evil. The story is sad and violent, because that’s how he felt about their time together.
As I watched Tony’s story, I was surprised by the brutality but also the dark humor and the quickness with which it moved. It always felt a little surreal, and I think that was most definitely the intention. Detective Bobby seems to act outside of the law because we only ever really see him when we see the police. The story is just Bobby, Tony, Ray and Lou. It’s a very isolated story in that way.
When Bobby tells Tony that he’s dying and therefore is willing to circumvent the law, it feels to neat and fortunate for Tony’s character. Even the scene where Bobby lets Tony point the gun at the men who murdered his family is so absurd that it became a little amusing. The whole thing is some sort of dark, twisted fantasy for Tony and possibly Edward.
Ray tells Edward that he’s a good guy (or something like that), mirroring what Susan said about him. The story really comes off as this guy trying to make himself the hero, the good guy, surrounded by horrible people and events. Hell, when the novel began, Tony’s wife and daughter were kind of irritating. In retrospect it might have been nothing more than a simplistic portrait of a technology-obsessed teenager, but his wife seemed uninterested in him or the trip. I thought it was going to be a story about a family growing apart. So really, everyone in the story was flawed or portrayed a little negatively except for Tony and Bobby.
Bobby is like some sort of angel. He’s everything Tony needs, and without him Tony would be powerless.
So what is there to make of all this? The film is very melodramatic, but that melodrama is dark and stylish. So much happened, but when you boil it down, not a lot happened. It’s a lonely woman, unsatisfied with her career, her house, her husband, reading a book an ex-husband wrote. And that ex-husband is a little messed up. He’s certainly hung up on her, and maybe he exercised those demons by writing that book, or maybe he didn’t and he just wants to torture her.
It’s a bit odd that Susan would want to see him. I can only imagine it’s because of her guilt, but part of it seems to be her unhappiness in her current marriage. That would mean part of her is still interested in him, at least on some level, but everything we as the audience learned about Edward makes us think she should stay away from him. Yeah, Edward seemed nice in those flashbacks, but that story is so horrific, I mean, I would be nervous to meet that writer, particularly if the story is based on real people.
I’m still trying to figure out what the beginning of the story means. There are these large women dancing in place. The first one if very overweight, then the second one is more so and then the third. After they showed the most obese woman, they returned to the first woman who didn’t look so overweight as she did before, at least relative to the most overweight woman. So maybe that says something about perspective or relativity. We think one thing about a person based on what we have to compare with other people. We read into the novel and depictions of Edward based on what is shown to us, and I don’t really know, I’m losing track of my thoughts.
In many ways, the dancing women aren’t flattering, well in more than many ways, but they do so nonetheless, confident, smiling and well-lit. They’re performing, and they’re int the spotlight. So Susan’s exhibition is taking this quality that is culturally shamed or looked down upon and placing it in a neat, beautiful space. We’re looking at something that’s not ever really considered beautiful, and that placement is meant to make it beautiful or to make us think about how it could be beautiful.
The rest of the story operates in a similar way. Susan says in her email to Edward that the story is well-written, so it’s this beautiful presentation of a very not-beautiful situation. Taking a step back, the whole film is beautiful enough, at least visually. Tom Ford is a fashion guy (I’m not familiar with his work), so he knows what makes a good image, but the story is hard to stomach and a little unnerving. Even beyond the horrible stuff we see and are told about, the story is about unhappy people. Susan’s mom doesn’t seem happy, but that might be my perspective. Her mom, and later Susan herself, is extremely put together, and it has a cold, off-putting effect. Also that dinner scene with Susan, her brother, her sister-in-law, etc. shows a bunch of wealthy people talking about what they do and how the passion no longer exists. They’re just rich.
I still don’t know what to make of this movie other than not everyone who appears to have their shit together actually has their shit together.