Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review. Therefore, many crucial
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis.
“Do you ever feel like your life has
turned into something you never intended?”
plot points are revealed and referenced for the purpose of analysis.
|Amy Adams as Susan Morrow|
Susan Morrow is a successful Los Angeles art gallery owner who lives a life of lacquered, heavily curated wealth in the kind of sterile, fortress-like compound Architectural Digest likes to try to convince us are homes. They’re domiciles, but by no stretch of the imagination are they homes.
Susan, who sports, or, more accurately, hides behind, a severe, vision-concealing hairdo, shares this steel and cement mausoleum with her model-perfect financier husband Hutton—who looks precisely like what you’d imagine a man named Hutton would look like—and several million dollars’ worth of art. Art for which Susan harbors little affection and must occasionally sell in order to keep up appearances while her husband’s business flounders.
|Armie Hammer as Hutton Morrow|
From the way she occupies space without actually inhabiting it, and from the way her makeup and dress appears designed to conceal and camouflage; we can tell that Susan is at some kind of a crossroads. She exhibits all the traits of the well-upholstered midlife crisis (career and creature comforts secured, the “Am I happy?” dilemma rears its head), but there’s something more. It has to do with her past...and it's tearing Susan apart.
“What right do I have to not be happy? I have everything. I feel ungrateful not to be happy.”
|Jake Gyllenhaal as Edward Sheffield/Tony Hastings|
Into this environment of ennui arrives a manuscript which turns out to be the proofs of a soon-to-be-published novel by Susan’s ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), an aspiring writer whom she hasn’t seen or been in contact with for 19-years. In fact, their breakup was so acrimonious and hurtful (she left after secretly aborting their child and cheating on him with the “handsome and dashing” Hutton) Edward never remarried and all attempts by Susan to contact him have been met with his hanging up on her. (Will future generations ever know the ecstasy of slamming down a phone receiver in anger?)
|Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes|
If the timing and arrival of this parcel weren’t already fraught with portent—delivered, significantly, by a shadowy figure driving a vintage, chocolate brown Mercedes—then certainly Susan suffering a this-can’t-be-a-good-omen paper cut while opening the package provides plenty of additional cause for concern. But the novel’s title “Nocturnal Animals” (a onetime term of endearment Edward had for his chronically insomniatic ex-wife), its dedication (“For Susan”), and uncharacteristically genial note crediting her with inspiring him, hints perhaps at the possibility of one of those timely, estranged couple reconciliations beloved of rom-coms.
|Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray Marcus|
But when her husband goes away for a business meetings (monkey business, if you my cruder meaning), Susan settles down to read the novel only to discover it is a disturbing, cruelly savage tale of violence, guilt, loss, and revenge. One which Susan interprets through the valueless absurdity of her current life and the fractured, self-reproachful emotional prism of her past with Edward. Within the novel's sad, heart-wrenching story of a family destroyed by a nighttime confrontation on a barren strip of West Texas Interstate, Susan perceives worrisome life parallels. The more she reads the more she comes to fear that the allusions and thinly-veiled similarities are an allegorical, perhaps threatening, indictment of her relationship with Edward, and her culpability in its dissolution.
|Laura Linney as Anne Sutton|
“Susan, enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful. Believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world.”
Nocturnal Animals, written and directed by Tom Ford (only his second film, his first being the sensitive and touching A Single Man) is one of my new modern classics: a contemporary film with the heart and soul of a film made in the '70s.
I don't write about many contemporary movies on this blog, but when I do (Closer, Blue Jasmine, Maps to the Stars, and Carnage), it's because they speak to me in a forceful, intimate voice reminiscent of my favorite films from the '60 and '70s. They tend to be difficult, character-driven scenarios dealing with pain of interpersonal conflict, self-confrontation, and alienation. They're movies that, for me, illuminate the vicissitudes of human experience in ways challenging and poignant. People often write to me, curious as to why I seem to be drawn to films of intense emotional conflict...usually between people not easily recognized as sympathetic.
I like to think it's because I'm essentially a happy person blessed with a modest, good life, and peace of mind. Happiness I attribute 100% to the lessons I've learned from the pain and difficult things I've endured in my life. While I wouldn't recommend wallowing in it, I personally don't think growth is possible without hardship, conflict, and grappling with things like sadness and tragedy. Since this is something I so respect in life, I guess it's a quality I gravitate to and applaud when it's addressed in film.
I was absolutely floored when I saw Nocturnal Animals. No, check that...Nocturnal Animals kicked me in the solar plexus. I was stunned. Like a good thriller should, its plot kept me in a near-constant state of agitation and anxiety; but the tension didn't emanate exclusively from the storyline(s) -
EVERYTHING about the film sparked my emotional antennae. From the costuming, sound design, decor, music (Abel Korzeniowski's score sent chills down my spine)...it's pure bliss. There is just so much going on and so much alert attention required, I was thoroughly worn out by the time the film was over. Yet, I couldn't wait to see it again. Watching it was a rich, exhilarating, equilibrium-losing, roller coaster experience.
As a longtime L.A. resident, Nocturnal Animals gave me a wholly unexpected look at the all-too-familiar. For years I've worked as a personal trainer to many wealthy clients; the world depicted in Nocturnal Animals is familiar to me (from the perspective of an outsider) and I recognize the people. It's a world where people exist almost exclusively in interiors. They live in security-gated homes, are driven to their laminated offices in oversized vehicles, after which they go to their sterile gyms, and later dress to go to not-too-cloistered restaurants. Nocturnal Animal's depiction of Los Angles as a gray and blue landscape is pretty apt, for who sees the sun when you're always wearing dark glasses and looking out at the world through the tinted windows of your limousine?
The world Susan inhabits is a holed-up world that offers many benefits (the illusion of safety, insulation from self-examination); but it brings with it a unique set of problems. Problems many of the wealthy are conflicted about because, when all is said and done, the world sees them as having everything. But they know that they don't (nobody does), and that realization sometimes just eats them alive.
|Zawe Ashton as Alex|
|Jena Malone as Sage|
The extreme, high-style, costumes of designer Arianne Phillips play a
significant role in establishing character and tone
THE SUBJECTIVE GAZE
I have a weakness for films that play with the idea of perception. The subjective gaze and the possibly unreliable narrator fascinate me because when a film leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions based on the images presented, truly eye-opening things are revealed. Mostly about the viewer.
All three narratives in Nocturnal Animals are seen through Susan's gaze. Hers is the only reality we're exposed to. Whether it be her re-evaluation of her past, her sense of alienation in her current unhappy marriage and unfulfilling job, or her response to Edward's novel; we only see them from Susan's perspective.
The subjectivity angle introduces many interesting points. For example: Just because she feels guilty about her past, doesn't mean she has genuine cause. As a friend tells her, "You're awfully hard on yourself." In many ways ALL the characters in Edward's novel convey some aspect of Susan's reality and sense of herself. Nocturnal Animals is at its most intriguing when, on repeat viewings, one realizes how many people, objects, and circumstances from her life Susan has projected onto the events in Edward's novel.
My own subjective gaze plays significantly into why Nocturnal Animals hit me so hard. My experience of the film was significantly intensified by the fact that a month prior to seeing it, a writer friend who takes my dance class offered me the opportunity to read the pre-publication manuscript of her forthcoming novel. She told me, “I think you’ll like it. You know these people.”
My friend is, independent of our knowing one another, one of my favorite authors, anyway; her books and short story collections never failing to engage me in their exploration of the complexity of human relationships. A compelling novelist of many books on varied topics, she most recently published a series of books for the Young Adult market. It was the expectation of revisiting the lighthearted tone of those novels that stayed foremost in my mind as I settled down with her manuscript.
I read the entire novel in two days, and nothing of what I knew of the woman or her previous work prepared me for this book. It was unexpectedly violent, emotionally powerful, and very sad; I was quite shaken by it and reduced to a crumpled heap of red eyes and runny nose by the time I finished the last chapter. The book left me physically and emotionally drained. And I was so startled that this brutally tense, suspenseful book was the work of this rather sweet, gentle-natured soul I knew.
Jump ahead to late December and I go to see Nocturnal Animals. Suffice it to say it was something of a wormholing experience. Here I am, a lifetime insomniac, watching a movie about another insomniac left shaken by the unexpected violence of an unpublished manuscript. A manuscript peopled with characters recognizable from her/ life. To make it weirder, my friend is a redhead who would be a ringer for Amy Adams were she to iron out her hair into that same severe hairdo. I was sitting there with my jaw in my lap. Here I was watching a movie about the subjective experience of “reading” (literal, as in reading a book, figurative as in the way self-reflection is a form of “reading” one’s own past), while almost interactively engaged in the very same activity throughout.
“Sometimes maybe it's not such a good idea to change things quite so much.”
Susan's remorse over the past, disaffection for the present, and existential disquietude arising from the metaphorical implications of her ex-husband's novel form Nocturnal Animals' threefold narrative structure. The ways in which these stories interrelate—mirror, comment upon, and reference one another—makes Nocturnal Animals an aesthetically satisfying, sometimes harrowing, journey into the psyche of a woman on a journey of self-confrontation. Themes emerge and relation dynamics are revealed, all requiring the kind of "active" and alert movie watching I tend to associate exclusively with films from the late-'60s and '70s.
Green and Red/Natural Instincts and Violence
As a symbol of nature, the color green and those associated with it come to signify the "nocturnal animals" populating the landscape of Susan's reality.
|Red hair cascading on a red velvet sofa figure in two scenes of devastation and violence. |
One emotional (Susan betrays her lack of faith in Edward), one physical (two vicious murders)
“Why did you give up on becoming an artist?”
As if we hadn’t already been down this road and learned our lesson with Stanley Kubrick, Michael Powell, & Alfred Hitchcock, a great many critics seemed stalled on the dramatic visual style of Nocturnal Animals. The look chosen for this sparsely-populated, introspective thriller is visually striking to be sure, often breathtakingly so, but some can’t seem to get past the curated gloss to access the story and characters within. The above-listed directors were often taken to task for the stylization of their films, but now that they’re dead (which is the way it goes, I guess) everyone hails the artistic eloquence of their fluency in the visual language of cinema.
|The Los Angeles of Nocturnal Animals is no sunny vision of Paradise. |
It's a cold, barely inhabited, slate blue environment of gray skies and incessant rain
|No one is depicted outdoors in Ford's vision of Los Angeles. Like a formaldehyde-encased art installation, |
Susan occupies sterile interiors
The narrative structure of Nocturnal Animals called upon Tom Ford & cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (in collaboration with the invaluable contributions of production designer Shane Valentino, art director Christopher Brown, and set decorator Meg Everist) to create three distinct worlds: 1) Susan’s present, 2) Susan’s past, 3) Susan’s interpretation of the fictional world in Edward’s novel. Three distinct worlds sharing a single common denominator...Susan’s very subjective reaction to each.
In a story told almost entirely from the internal and external perspective of its main character, one of the more arresting aspects of Nocturnal Animals is not merely that these worlds have to be depicted in different ways, but that they have to be depicted in ways subtly conveying that they are the not-entirely-realistic impressions of a single individual.
|As imagined by Susan, the West Texas desert is a vast, arid, sunbaked wasteland, |
nightmarishly beautiful and ominously desolate
With Susan so often shown in states of isolation within empty, cavernous environments, silently grappling with self-reflection, self-evaluation, and, most painfully, self-recrimination; the visual style takes over the storytelling. And while the images convey details, both significant and small, about Susan and her life, their evocation and content is consistently influenced by the loss of emotional equilibrium she experiences as the film progresses. The impact her ex-husband's novel has on Susan creates a mounting sense of unease in the character, reflected in the film's darker palette, heightened sense of menace, and discomfiting cold images.
As these three concurrently running narratives bleed in and out of one another, the strong visual style of the segments guide us (per Susan's perceptions) as the individuals and actions in each story come to mirror and comment upon one another; both literally (clean-shaven Edward, red-headed mother and daughter) and allegorically (Hutton Morrow/Ray Marcus as handsome instruments of emotional violence and destruction).
There will always be those who feel that stylization and technical gloss in a film is emotionally distancing, and that visual grit is somehow closer to truth. I'm not in that camp, however, so I can appreciate that the Architectural Digest sheen of some parts of Nocturnal Animals carry as much dramatic weight as those cinema vérité, too-close-for-comfort close-ups in the fictional Texas narrative. How a film is shot is part of a film's vocabulary, and as can happen with any language, the vocabulary a film chooses can be misunderstood.
Susan Morrow owns a successful art gallery and serves on the board of a major museum. As an art dealer/curator/collector, Susan is haunted by her ex-husband's admonition that she studies art because she lacks the courage to be an artist herself. Though art plays a significant part in her life, over the years that seed of doubt planted by her husband's words (and her own sense of uncertainty about the path of life she's chosen) has given root to a cynical (healthy?) disdain for what passes for art in her world. Certainly her gallery's multimedia installation combining images of nude obese women and kitsch Americana.
"I thought the work was incredibly strong. So perfect with this junk culture we live in."
"It is junk. Total junk."
Nocturnal Animals, a work of art itself, makes inspired use of artwork throughout; informing character and providing silent commentary on the film's themes.
|A jarring photograph by Richard Misrach (Desert Fire #153) appearing to depict a ritual killing in the desert is located in the entryway of Susan's home. Perhaps the source of the vision of Texas Susan imagines while reading Edward's manuscript?|
The blood-red wall of Susan's austere and decorously spartan office is adorned
by John Currin's "Nude in a Convex Mirror."
“Nobody gets away with what you did. Nobody.”
I feel it’s important to stress that this essay is my personal, subjective analysis of Nocturnal Animals, representative of how the film spoke to me. I intend neither an unequivocal “explanation” of the film and its themes, nor a wholesale endorsement encouraging the reader to run out and buy tickets, guaranteed of having the same experience. The mere fact that I have absolutely no complaints with the film stands as evidence of my lack of objectivity. I loved everything about this movie. From the brilliance of the performances to Ford's deft direction and stylistic touches, Nocturnal Animals is just my kind of cinema.
Because my experience was so rewarding, I've enjoyed reading about how problematic so many people found the film's conclusion to be. It's an astonishingly powerful ending as far as I'm concerned, and the fact that I didn't anticipate it in the least—in spite of its thematic consistency—is what I loved about it. It's one of those endings that thirty people can watch and no two of them will be in exact accord as to what it all means. Some find it frustratingly vague; me, it takes me back to the heyday of '70s cinema when filmmakers were fine with making movies open to multiple interpretations, then leaving them to draw their own conclusions.
I won't be offering an explanation to the ending here. But I will suggest that it is neither as devastating nor as positive as one might initially presume. Merely consider what I mentioned earlier, that, at least as far as what I've discovered to be true in my own life, growth and happiness is sometimes only possible through the lessons one learns through pain and loss. In which case, what may appear at first glance to be hopeless and devastating about the conclusion of Nocturnal Animals might in reality be the key to ultimately free a nocturnal animal from its cage.
“You just can't walk from things all the time."