Nocturnal Animals is the second movie made by writer and director Tom Ford. It is a deeply unsettling tale about love, regret, and overcoming painful situations. It uses the feature of story within a story to make a metaphor and reveal the feelings of its characters. The intertwining of both stories is an important comment on human nature and the way we deal with pain.
So let’ take a look at it.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
The opening scene of the movie is very striking and deserves an analysis of its own. In it we see obese naked women dancing and smiling in slow motion. We then see this presentation is a video from an exhibition in Susan’s art gallery. The opening is meant to show what true freedom feels like. Those women aren’t in conformity with society’s standards of beauty but aren’t ashamed of it. This is a stark contrast to Susan’s point of view, later revealed in the story, and offers us an insight into her personality that is very important to the message of the movie.
But, who is Susan? And what is her story?
The Story –part one
Susan, as mentioned previously, is an art gallery owner. She is in an unhappy marriage with business man Hutton Morrow, whose infidelity becomes clear to her halfway through the movie. Though she is successful and lives an apparently glamorous lifestyle, her world is cold.
Her job doesn’t give her the satisfaction it used to and her attempts to rekindle her relationship with her husband fail miserably.
One day Susan receives a correspondence. It is the manuscript of a book written by her ex husband, Edward. The movie then follows Susan reading Edward’s novel which causes her to reflect upon their relationship and the metaphor within his work.
The story within the story
The book tells the story of Tony Hastings, his wife Laura and his daughter India who are on a road trip in Texas. In the middle of the trip they are forced off the road by three men named Ray, Lou and Turk. After some harassment by the three men, Ray and Turk take Edward’s wife and daughter while Lou forces him to drive through the road to supposedly meet his family.
Lou drops Edward at the end of the road and he stays there hiding until dawn when he goes out to find help. The Detective assigned to the case, Bobby Andes, finds his wife and daughter bodies on a red sofa near an abandoned shack. They had been raped and cruelly murdered.
A year later, Bobby contacts Tony to identify one of the murderers, Lou, who is then charged. The detective also informs him that Turk died on a robbery, so they go after Ray. But the evidences against Ray are circumstantial which makes Bobby go to extreme lengths to bring the criminal to justice. He kidnaps Lou and Ray. The detective kills the former, but the latter runs away.
Tony tracks Ray to the shack where his family had been murdered and confronts him. He’s holding a gun but Ray says he’s weak and that he won’t be able to do it. Tony shoots him and Ray falls, but not before knocking him out with an iron bar.
When Tony wakes up he’s partially blinded. He goes out of the cabin and accidentally shoots himself. He dies.
The story- part two
When reading the story Susan remembers her past with Edward. They were teenage friends who met again in New York and went out together. Over dinner, they talk about their lives. Through this conversation we perceive that Edward is a very romantic idealistic guy who wants to be a writer. Susan, in contrast, is more cynical, or at least she thinks so. She changed her major in the University from art to art history and she claims she’s not creative.
Another insight we get into Susan’s personality is when Edward compares her to her mom. She feels bothered by it since her mom represents to her all qualities she despises. Edward clarifies that their resemblance is in their eyes. Both have sad eyes.
Edward and Susan proceed to plan a life together, which her mom opposes. In her opinion Edward is below her daughter, because he’s a romantic who doesn’t have the necessary drive to achieve his goals. She thinks he’s weak and tells Susan the things she loves about him now will be the things she’ll hate.
Edward and Susan marry anyway, but after a while things start to go downhill. Susan can’t comprehend Edwards’s lack of ambition. She reads one of his manuscripts which in her opinion is not good enough. She suggests he should write about something other than himself. He gets mad and hurt about that.
After sometime, Susan breaks up with Edward, claiming they want different things in life. She starts her relationship with Hutton, who accompanies her to a clinic so she could have an abortion. Edward sees them and is devastated upon discovering about his unborn child.
In the present moment, after finishing reading Edward’s novel, Susan asks him to a dinner. He accepts, but he never shows up.
How things connect
Edward’s novel is an allegory that shows all the pain he’s gone through in the real life by losing his wife and unborn child. The title of the book and movie refers to a nickname he gave Susan, because she couldn’t sleep. She, much like Ray, is the nocturnal animal who preyed upon his family and destroyed it.
We’re given some hints of the connection between the real world and the novel. Tony’s wife and daughter are found on a red sofa, like the one Susan was sitting on when she criticized his novel. The three criminals’ car is the same one behind Edward in the scene Susan breaks up with him.
It is also interesting to note how when we see the story of the book it is through Susan’s perspective, so she imagines Edward as the main character but doesn’t imagine herself as his wife. Laura is the wife she wishes she was, but could never be.
The novel portrays Edward’s evolution. Many of the criticisms he suffered were for being weak. His main character, Tony, in the end, shows he’s not weak by killing Ray, but kills himself in the process because that person didn’t exist anymore. Edward became a new person by transforming all of his pain into art. And this is his ultimate revenge to Susan.
Susan is even more frustrated because she does not have the power to create. All her feelings build up and she can’t get a creative release like Edward did. She, like her mother, chose a life of superficiality that is also a prison for her. She despises the art exhibition in the beginning of the movie because she doesn’t really believe in the freedom those women have. Her world may seem fabulous for other people, but the sadness in her eyes, referenced by Edward, is always there because she can’t really show her true self and have a creative expression. So she only showcases other people’s expressions.
The difference between Susan and Edward is that the former hides herself while the latter shows himself. Edward can create because he’s not afraid to put his vulnerabilities in the book. Susan, on the other hand, is entrapped by appearances and since she doesn’t show who she really is, she can’t turn her feelings into art. The agony she feels can be represented by the insomnia she has.
So when Edward sends her an amazing book, it’s the connection she needed to break out from her world of symmetrical fabricated balance expressed through the cinematography of the movie. She feels she can reach up to him and have closure but he never shows. He wants her to know he’s over her and that he is an amazing writer.
This is, in fact, a story about revenge, but it offers so much more thematically. It deals with the consequences our choices bring us, especially when these are made out of fear. It was Susan’s fear of failing who kept her from being an artist and maybe saving her relationship with Edward. Another point is the part pain plays into art. The movie makes the statement that Edward could have never written such a masterpiece if it wasn’t for his pain. This, in a way, is related to the movie’s opening sequence, because it shows that art comes from how you choose to deal with your issues.
Furthermore, the movie’s ending can be also seen with a bit of irony. Receiving Edward’s book made Susan somewhat hopeful. This is in contrast with Edward’s new attitude, which’s a lot more cynical since he chooses to be vengeful. So in a way there is a role reversal in the end of the movie. Edward was able to show he’s true self in the book, but in a way he also killed his old self in the process. But Susan arguably went through a shock by reading his book and now there’s nothing holding her back anymore. The truth about the emptiness in her life is in her face.
Could Susan free herself from all that and create art? Or will she be forever melancholic? The movie, like real life, is very much open ended and that is part of its brilliance.
It all boils down to turning experiences into expression, so that ugliness can, if allowed, give way to beauty.