Nocturnal Animals is 2016 psychological drama about a woman in bad times who reads a book written by her ex-husband that appears to be more than what it seems.
There’s no getting around the fact that director Tom Ford‘s sophomore effort is a quizzical little gem that if anything, inspires conversation. While it’s split audiences and critics, it is nonetheless a stirring piece of art that challenges at every level, something few movies do these days. The film centers are two parallel stories and both conclude in dark fashion, which leads to a number of questions about what it all means. Be warned, what follows spoils the end so be sure to watch before moving on.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art gallery owner that is struggling to keep it open, as modern works and performance pieces have stretched the boundaries of good taste and the meaning of the gallery. She is married to her second husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), a man so disinterested in her, he almost seems to be begging her to notice his infidelities. Susan lives in a world of false fronts, hyper sterile environments layered in cosmetic flare. Even her face is a mask of contrasting tones.
She receives a manuscript in the mail from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man she left 19 years ago, telling him he is weak and deceiving him about a pregnancy and abortion. The book tells of a fictional story about a man named Tony, his wife, and their daughter who run into some road rage on a deserted West Texas road, leading to the rape and murder of both women and the man relying on the help of a local, dying deputy to bring him justice.
Susan is moved by the book and notices connections to their estranged past and contacts Edward in hopes of meeting, reconciling, and perhaps igniting a second chance, seeing the book as a kind of invitation to do so. Edward has even dedicated the writing to her. In the book, Tony seeks to find closure on his path as well.
The film has two endings, or rather a conclusion for each character, Susan in the real world and Tony in the book. For Susan, she goes to the restaurant where she and Edward agreed to meet. He never shows, instead leaving her to sit alone at a highly visible table for the entire evening as she waits, watching the door in hope. For Tony, he confronts the murderer and in a battle that sees him killing the man, ends up blinded and then collapsing into the dirt having accidentally shot himself.
First, lets understand Susan and Edward. They met young, during college, and while they are attracted and both have dreams of their own, they are not secure. Susan is swayed by her domineering mother (Laura Linney), who from the start calls the relationship a problem, doomed to fail, and even though Susan struggles to be the opposite of what her mother is, is steadily becoming her, just as her mother tells her she will be. Susan abandons her hopes to be an artist and instead becomes a curator of sorts to a shiny, beautiful gallery that is void of character and empty of heart.
The museum is the metaphorical embodiment of her relationship with Hutton, a handsome callous man who is all style but no emotion, and as Susan cheated on Edward with Hutton, he represents the cheating on her dreams as well, leaving behind the passion of art (also represented by Edward) for something phony. Luxury doesn’t make a person happy. More importantly, the museum is home to increasingly bizarre pieces that come to represent the theme of the film entire, with one work, a large painting with the word REVENGE written in black ink, displayed on wall, causing Susan to question how it even came to be there.
Tony’s story, as told in the book and played out cinematically on screen, is visualized by Susan to be populated with familiarity. Tony looks exactly like Edward (and played by Gyllenhaal). Tony’s wife Laura (played by Isla Fisher, who looks strikingly similar to Adams) and their daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are naturally seen by Susan to represent her and the child that was aborted. At one point, we even see Susan on the phone with a girl who is meant to be her real life daughter, but it’s ambiguous as to whether she really exists or is imagined in the moment. Or who her father is.
When Susan makes the connection that the death of Laura and India in the story represent her and the lost baby, she is deeply moved and reaches out to Edward via email, arranging the meeting, to which he agrees. We see her prepare, not by applying the layers of make-up she typically wears, but instead removing it, signaling a shift. Ford uses highlighted female lips drawn with bold colors and sometimes bulbous shapes to extend the metaphor of her deceit. She smears away her lipstick, leaving hers lips bare, showing us that now she is ready to reveal truths and speak with no charade. Of course, she will never have the chance. She sits alone at the table, surrounded by nearby couples who come and go until the place is empty and the staff lingers to the side. It is Edward’s final rejection of everything she was to him, the book the catalyst to force her from her shadows, and the no-show a last stand that reveals he is now not the one thing she always said he was: weak.
Tony’s fate represents the emotional metamorphosis for Edward, his odyssey one that plays out with extreme violence as the women in his life are lost because–as he is shown to be–too weak a man to save them. He meets and asks for help from Deputy Andes (Michael Shannon), himself a cancer-stricken man with a short time remaining, but one determined to bring down the men responsible for the death of Laura and India. Andes represents failing justice, no matter how diligent it might seem, and one that ultimately folds, forcing Tony to make a choice that he’s been afraid to do from the start. It leaves him literally blinded to the consequences and at last to fall upon the weapon that freed him, shooting himself before fading to black.
This tragedy for Tony represents the long slow death that Edward faces in making the decision to reject Susan at the restaurant, an action, just like in facing the killer, one he has no choice but to make. Revenge has no winner.