Nocturnal Animals (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Jonathan Murray

The shadow of the past: Susan's (Amy Adam) life is thrown into turmoil by an unexpected letter from her former husband.

Produced by Robert Salerno and Tom Ford; directed by Tom Ford; screenplay by Tom Ford, based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright; cinematography by Seamus McGarvey; editing by Joan Sobel and Deborah Richardson; production design by Shane Valentino; costume design by Arianne Phillips and Donald Mowat; music by Abel Korzeniowski; starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Color, 116 min., 2016. A Focus Features release.

Breaking news: Nocturnal Animals, fashion designer-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford’s second feature, is never knowingly underdressed. More surprising, perhaps, is the extent to which the movie palpably aches to let it all hang out. In this, it both echoes and amplifies its two central protagonists’ shared state of extreme psychic uncertainty. Among other things, Ford strives to extract from Austin Wright’s 1993 source novel Tony and Susan a morality tale about flip sides. Be careful what you most wish for in life: the thrill of any chase comes with a less obvious, but no less real, capacity to chill in tow.  

The murky fascination of Nocturnal Animals lies, however, in the film’s inability to follow its own advice. Boundaries become blurred with regard to any number of Ford’s central themes and preoccupations. What distinguishes valid processes of aestheticization—taking things apart—from vapid ones of commodification— tarting things up? When and why does the potentially liberating frisson of defiant male nonconformity tip over into full-on toxic masculinity? Does the law become something else the moment you take it into your own hands? Ford’s movie doesn’t manage fully coherent or convincing answers to any of this. But in so visibly trying and failing to do so, Nocturnal Animals also suggests its director’s desire to push himself significantly further and harder than was the case with the chamber piece confines of his debut feature, A Single Man (2009).      

Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is a woman who increasingly doubts whether she really Has It All. Her lucrative career as a high-end LA gallerist sees her shuck sensationalism in the name of “Art.” Her husband’s impeccably square jaw conceals a comparably hard heart. And then the past intervenes into this unprepossessing present. Susan receives an unsolicited package from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man she has not seen for twenty years. What Edward sends (and dedicates to) his former spouse is a manuscript copy of his debut novel, Nocturnal Animals. In that text, central character Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) loses his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher), and daughter, India (Ellie Bamber), in appalling circumstances. An all-night drive across the Texas plains ends in tragedy when Tony’s family is waylaid by a small gang of murderous locals, led by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Ray and his goons abduct, sexually assault, and kill Laura and India. Tony’s subsequent pursuit of official justice is complicated when the local investigating officer, Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), tries to goad and gird him toward vigilantism instead of legal due process.     

The hunter gets captured by the game: a propensity for violence unites Sherriff Andes (Michael Shannon) and his quarry, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

As Susan page-turns, Ford pleats. His film continues to show her going through the motions of an unsatisfying life in the present. Additionally, however, we also see her subjective visualization of Edward’s lurid plot as she races through it. Lastly, we also witness flashbacks to different stages in Susan and Edward’s unsuccessful relationship two decades before. Fiction and fact, past and present commingle: Susan increasingly interprets Edward’s fictional narrative of excruciating, unlooked-for separation as a surrogate for their shared real-life experience of the same thing twenty years previous. Emotionally moved, she arranges to meet with him in order to discuss his work and their past. Nocturnal Animals ends at the scene of that arranged reunion.   

Just like (and maybe even more than) the characters of Susan and Tony within it, Nocturnal Animals seems acutely aware of the possibility of being compromised by the very things that it longs most to pursue. Central in this regard for Ford and his film is the allure of comprehensively achieved aesthetic precision and control. Not for nothing does Nocturnal Animals open with a formally painstaking display of what might, conventionally speaking, be received as images of extreme ugliness (or, at very least, aberrance). Viewers are confronted by close-up images from Susan’s latest exhibition opening: projected films of morbidly obese women gyrating provocatively while wearing tiny, tacky pieces of erotic attire. Through the images in question, Ford questions both his viewer and himself. The enquiry he poses relates to the potential—and potential pitfalls—inherent within any aestheticizing act. Can the abject be reclaimed if only aestheticized intensively and ingeniously enough? Can the conventionally acclaimed be reassessed via a similar process? Where does the source of any form of experienced beauty (or beauty’s opposite) truly lie? Secure and innate within that which is represented? Or is it a contingent property of the specific terms in which a representation of something or someone is made?  

Amy Adams as Susan Morrow.

Fashion typically hedges its bets in response to such dilemmas, decking out beautiful people in beautiful things just to be doubly sure. Given Ford’s couture background, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Nocturnal Animals strikes a similar, strategically equivocal note. On one hand, the film’s opening sets out a celebratory sense of the aesthetic as alchemical. The constructed gallery images of the obese women seem far more alive than the women themselves. Indeed, the latter are archly posed as naked corpses throughout a crowded gallery space in which the guests seem more preoccupied by champagne and canapés. Filmed frames of the women are far more meaningful and pleasurable than the women’s physical frames. Art, Ford suggests, has the capacity to create human life rather than simply commenting on it.   

On the other hand, however, Nocturnal Animals seems equally stalked by the counterproposition that aestheticization saps human vitality and specificity instead of supporting them. Most obviously, there is the opening scene’s clear sense—endlessly reiterated as Nocturnal Animals then progresses—of black-clad Susan being oppressed by useless beauty. More intriguing still in this regard is another mourning-related metaphor, within which one of Edward’s fictional characters is seen and heard dying at the exact same time as Susan arrives at her preferred and permanent aesthetic positioning of the protagonist in question, understanding him as a direct authorial surrogate.

Ford’s ultimate conclusion seems to be that, like Lady Macbeth’s Hell, the aesthetic realm is murky. At some points within Nocturnal Animals, creating an image of someone or something elevates the latter, figuratively speaking. But at others, the same process tends toward an act of figurative elimination instead—or, more troubling still, as well. Maybe that’s a lesson any experienced and thoughtful fashion designer (as Ford unquestionably is) can’t help but learn—a form of knowledge that comes with the day(wear) job. Mixed messages are contained within the act of putting something or someone on a pedestal (or catwalk). Similarly, a large part of the contemporary fashion world’s visual rhetoric and rituals deliberately blur boundaries between living figures (human model or wearers) and inanimate counterparts (shop mannequins and studio stands). Thus, even as it consistently strives for a notably rarefied level of celluloid beauty, Nocturnal Animals also concedes the possibility that aesthetic experience, whether predicated on the act of creating or of consuming something, is perhaps a matter of every wo/man being drawn toward killing the thing s/he loves.

But there’s more to Ford’s film than just self-referential authorial examination of the ambiguous pleasures of surface and sheen. For one thing, the director changes elements of Austin Wright’s quarter-century-old source novel in an apparent attempt to reboot the latter as a parable for the modern-day State of the Union. Alongside questions of “the aesthetic,” the film’s opening moments also flag “the American” as a comparably urgent thematic concern: the skimpy fetishwear sported by Susan’s overweight gallery models is stars-and-stripes themed. Like any good designer or stylist, Ford knows that finding the right location(s) is half the battle within any professional fashion shoot. He therefore makes wholesale changes to Wright’s original literary narrative settings (in the book, Susan and Tony’s respective stories both unfold in northeastern American states). These alterations play a major role in reframing the filmic Nocturnal Animals as an aspiring allegory of present-day American cultural disunity and doubt.   

Nocturnal Animals’ overarching image of a national House Divided emerges from Ford’s knowing cross-fertilization of two prominent regional traditions and stereotypes of American fiction and identity. His version of Susan’s story goes west, both literally and figuratively. She pursues (but fails to find) happiness in a hyperfeminine, megaurban, complacently materialistic Los Angeles full of people but empty of life. As a direct consequence of Susan’s life choices, the cinematic existence of Edward’s creation, Tony, heads south instead. The latter is forced to navigate a hypermasculine, rural, resentfully poor Texas empty of people but overflowing with dangerous human emotion and desire. Cue Nocturnal Animals’ invocation of any number of conveniently-to-hand Red vs. Blue USA images, motifs, and narratives familiar from the most recent phase in the nation’s seemingly unending Culture Wars. Liberal women hounded by illiberal men; coastal urban ennui set against flyover state envy; and an all-encompassing sense of multiple Americas that simply can’t (much like both of Susan’s marriages) attain a comfortable long-term coexistence. Even seemingly trivial details, such as the remarkably air miles-intensive model of adultery preferred by Susan’s current husband (wife left in LA, mistress loved in NYC), suggest the idea of deepening estrangements contained within, but emphatically not contained by, the country’s limits.

The fairest of them all? Susan (Amy Adams) is forced to reevaluate her major life choices.

Yet, in its state-of-the-nation material as in much else, Nocturnal Animals tries to inhabit and interrogate two conflicting perspectives without ever coming down on one side or other. On paper, Ford’s sympathies ought to be closer to Susan, her milieu, and the values she and it represent. But in practice, his directorial sensibilities seem far more actively engaged by the film’s imagined Texas and the things it stands for. The dark America of Ray and Bobby Andes is not agreeable. For Ford/in Ford’s hands, however, it also feels psychically and cinematically alive in a way that Susan’s hypercivilized LA life hardly ever does.

A similar sense of part-obscured confusion and complication also applies to Nocturnal Animals’ gender politics. Just where, and with whom, these ultimately identify contradicts initial appearances. In numerous promotional interviews, Ford has positioned his work as a modern-day woman’s picture, aligned himself with Susan’s emotional position and perspective, and emphasized his directorial fascination with mid-twentieth-century traditions of film melodrama. On the surface, his movie seems to follow through on all of this. Nocturnal Animals both begins and ends with close-up images and sounds of Susan’s eyes and her breathing, announcing itself as a work concerned with the experience of living inside a modern woman’s skin. More generally and generically still, many classical Hollywood melodrama conventions are present and correct. Strings swell, eyes fill, dream home heartaches abound. Asking at one point, “What right do I have not to be happy?,” Susan positions herself as the offspring of the socially secure but privately sad, mature female protagonist of American film melodrama’s Sirkian strain. And, just like those cinematic forebears, she faces impossible choices and dilemmas. On one hand, Susan is punished for timidity: too unsure, by her own admission, to become an artist herself, she settles for (and is unsatisfied by) dealing with art’s commodification rather than its creation. But on the other, she also pays for temerity: her instigation and later termination of her relationship with Edward provoke a delayed crisis of self-doubt decades after those decisions were originally made.

The apparently weighty case for viewing Nocturnal Animals as a twenty-first-century woman’s picture seems further bolstered when one considers the film’s obvious desire to critique the gender inequalities and iniquities now frequently grouped under the popular umbrella term “toxic masculinity.” Nearly all the movie’s main male characters (Ray, Andes, Susan’s husband) are gripped by personal appetites for sex and/or violence that make them dangerous to others. Indeed, the only female protagonist that Nocturnal Animals shows being made truly happy by a man is an LA actress married to a homosexual. “At least,” she tells Susan, “I can be sure I’m the only woman in his life.” Even seemingly gentle Edward and Tony (or Edward/Tony) ultimately fall prey to the general rule they at first seem to flout. Indeed, Nocturnal Animals cleverly leaves open the possibility of seeing Edward as the entire work’s most violent man of all. His lurid slab of literary Southern Gothic draws blood even before it is opened (Susan cuts her finger opening the manuscript package). Its pages then orchestrate no fewer than five violent deaths. Edward thus starts to look like someone rather in love with the very kind of bloodthirsty manhood his work ostensibly lashes out against.

Consider, for example, the telling fact that responsibility for the violence within Edward’s fiction is always ascribed by it to women. Men may pull the trigger, but women press those men’s buttons in the first place. In a quintessential example of misogyny’s self-exculpating structural logic, “I did it” always gives way to “You made me do it.” Or, as Edward cunningly, cruelly writes to Susan in the covering letter that accompanies his manuscript: “You gave me the inspiration.” In this sense, the seemingly clear identification that Ford’s film (and/or Susan within it) draws between Edward and Tony may in fact be a red herring. In one of his many unsavory macho jokes, Ray claims that his star sign is “Gemini”: he, perhaps, is the externalized doppelgänger that Edward creates but whose provenance and nature he cannot directly countenance. Edward’s compulsion to revisit past slights to his sense of masculinity—Susan reads his story as a displaced account of the pain her ending of their marriage has put him through—turns him into a man with little compunction about hurting others (the fictional characters he writes, the real-life ex-wife he writes to) in the present. The enormity of his masculine self-pity precludes him from showing pity to others.

Portrait of the artist as a young man: Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s novel springs from the pain of romantic loss.

Yet, the ultimate question this seemingly feminist logic begs is a confounding one. Does the male author of Nocturnal Animals the film (Ford) end up falling prey to a loss of perspective analogous to that suffered by the male author of Nocturnal Animals the book (Edward)? The ambiguous indecision that characterizes Ford’s take on the type of American cultural identity concretized within its Texan sections also suffuses his narrative’s perspective on the kinds of masculine identity that it showcases. Nocturnal Animals knows that its main male models/models of maleness are horribly compromised—but the movie seems to find them compulsively fascinating as a result. Most sweepingly of all, Tony/Edward’s personal agonies are framed as grippingly volatile and visceral in a way that Susan’s feminine equivalents arguably are not. Moreover, for all his and its manifold faults, Edward actually creates something (a work of literature) from his painfully disappointing personal history. By contrast, Susan’s equivalent response to her own wounds is far more passive and self-abnegating, settling as she does for well-remunerated, parasitic circulation and consumption of other peoples’ creations.

The binary opposition emerging from all of this is one of the oldest canards in the book—whether Edward’s or anyone else’s. Masculinity is an active, authentic, and consequently involving human state; femininity tends toward the opposite. It’s possibly something like this one-sided logic that allows Nocturnal Animals to simultaneously put down the identities and actions of its male ensemble in one sense while also conceding that such things are un-put-down-able in another. Or, to frame it another way: it’s much easier to imagine Susan greedily wolfing down a novel about Ray than the other way round. Ultimately, Nocturnal Animals seems enamored with the mess men make. This is so not least because such regrettable mistakes give an inveterate aesthete like Ford a handy pretext for his compulsion to tidy things up. The most troublingly symptomatic example of the film’s equivocations and contradictions in this regard comes with its maker’s technically bravura, rococo lensing of the aftermath of Edward’s wife and daughter’s murder. The too-perfect nude tableau in question is the work of a fearsomely diligent male visual stylist eminently capable of making cold female flesh look So Hot Right Now.  

Yet, the sheer obsessive energy and intensity of Ford’s aestheticizing leanings are not, as already suggested in other ways above, without certain productive outcomes. The last of Nocturnal Animals’ major thematic equivocations involves the movie’s desire to simultaneously explore two closely interrelated phenomena: one particular form of artistic creation (writing) and its attendant mode of consumption (reading). Here, Nocturnal Animals finds itself on surer ground—though more so with regard to the film’s exploration of reading as a state of mind than its parallel examination of writing. While the latter is not without insight, it is also hamstrung by close association with the masculinist strain within Nocturnal Animals’ gender politics. Edward’s original cover letter to Susan notes that his book is to be published in the spring. Studied oversight of the slew of problems with the rogue author’s personal intentions and imaginative acts offers, however, the only way in which one can fully buy into the inferred wider notion of artistic creation as a form of cyclical rebirth or restitution. Ford, though, seems to want to go there. He gives the young Edward space within one of Susan’s flashback sequences, for example, to advance the argument that “writing is a way of keeping things alive…if I write it down, it will last forever.” Within the logic of creativity-as-compensation, the four-letter name Edward chooses for his novel’s lead protagonist is just as likely to be a diminutive for “Atonement” as it is for the name “Anthony.”

More nuanced and coherent (indeed, as nuanced and coherent as anything else within the film) is Nocturnal Animals’ analysis of the human mechanics and motivations that define the experience of reading fiction. Setting aside its more questionable inferences, the dedication with which Edward’s novel opens (“For Susan”) proffers a helpful reminder that fictional texts are generally intended to speak to the needs, questions, and desires of someone other than their author. The meanings and moods encountered within a work of fiction are therefore the reader’s creation to a significant degree, rather than solely or even primarily that of the writer. Within this Barthesian logic, Nocturnal Animals can perhaps be reclaimed as a modern-day woman’s picture after all: there’s an argument to be made that what the film shows says as much about (because it emanates as much from) Susan as it does Edward.

Ellie Bamber as India Hastings.

Ford is formally adept at signaling and unraveling such complex entanglements. His rhythmic strategy of always cutting back to Susan immediately after points within Edward’s literary narrative where lines are irreversibly crossed—India’s initial act of defiance against her tormentors, Tony’s final narrative action—helps viewers remember that what they are watching unfold is not so much a hermetically sealed and static fictional narrative as it is one reader’s subjective animation of that narrative’s raw materials. Similarly, a preponderance of visual echoes linking Susan and Tony—he in his bath, she in hers, and so on—is effective in suggesting the complex interdependency that exists between a real person who reads and a fictional one who is read about. The emotional and psychological interior of one has the power to reshape that of the other, and vice versa. The recurring motif of Crosses worn by several characters—as a professional fashion designer, Ford sure knows how to get the most out of accessories—also articulates the idea of reading as a mutually transformative intersection between two separate human beings (author and audience) and/or separate categories of human being (real-life reader and fictional character).

What emerges from all this is an admirably substantive, elegantly communicated treatise on the Möbius strip-like extent to which we use our lives to make sense of fiction while simultaneously using fiction to make sense of our lives. Of course, that latter point potentially applies as much to Tom Ford’s real-life relationship with Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan as it does to Susan’s connection with Edward’s Nocturnal Animals. Ford’s second movie is hardly flawless. But it often finds cinematically memorable, technically accomplished ways in which to visualize its partial-sighted, self-interested thematic priorities and uncertainties. In doing so, Nocturnal Animals reminds us that similar qualities lie at the heart of any act of reading. It also suggests that its maker’s evolving directorial career is attempting to concern itself with rather more than the shallow allure of high-gloss surfaces alone.

Jonathan Murray, a Cineaste contributing writer, teaches film and visual culture at the Edinburgh College of Art.

Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2