Seven years is a long time to leave between your first and second film. A hiatus of that length only encourages extra criticism if the follow-up doesn’t meet expectations. Fortunately for Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals proves that 2009’s A Single Man was no one-hit wonder from a fashion designer turning his hand to directing.
Susan (Amy Adams) is a gallerist, divorced and re-married to a cheating banker and dissatisfied with the pill-popping, canapé-refusing world of the Los Angeles art scene. Out of the blue, she receives a manuscript for a novel written by her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), who she hasn’t seen for 20 years, dedicated to her and entitled Nocturnal Animals, after a nickname he once had for her. The film presents Susan’s literal and figurative readings of the novel: the events that take place in the narrative itself and Susan’s memories of hers and Edward’s relationship, which broke down partly due to her lack of faith in his abilities as a writer. The fictional events in the novel, we come to realise, relate symbolically to the real-life breakdown of this relationship, and writing this book is Edward’s vengeance on Susan for leaving him.
Edward’s novel itself is a noir thriller that follows Tony, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is unable to prevent the brutal rape and murder of his wife and daughter after local criminals run them off the road in remote Texas, and the steps he takes to pursue their killers. Assisting him in his endeavours is a grizzled Southern detective, played with the darkest shades of humour by Michael Shannon. Unlike in A Single Man, which drew criticism for being a little sterile, there’s grit here: blood, sweat and shit-stained toilet paper (the last of which drew a gasp of affront from the middle-aged audience I watched it with) and the contrast between the novel plot’s brutal violence and the antiseptic art world works to great effect. The novel plot is just a touch over-the-top: do family members of the recently murdered usually ride along in the police car to pick up suspects? No, but the meta-plot can afford to go beyond the bounds of what is strictly plausible, because within the world of the film it is a fiction. This could have ended up being a weakness of the film’s structure; in theory it should limit our investment in the plot of the meta-narrative. However, both the quality of the acting within the novel sections of the film and the appeal of the conceit itself are so high that the gamble pays off.
It all sounds convoluted, but Ford’s triumph, and that of his editor Joan Sobel, is that the interplay between these three strands never confuses us. In fact, the film’s complexity is its strength; substance has decidedly won out over style here and Ford’s background doesn’t muscle to the fore in Nocturnal Animals in the way that it did in A Single Man. The aesthetic of Susan’s Los Angeles is familiar from his first film; there’s modernist architecture-porn, recognisable works of art, classic cars and sharp suits, but Nocturnal Animals is also highly nuanced and densely psychological. Some viewers have complained that they don’t quite know what it all means: how exactly does the story of the novel relate to Susan and Edward’s actual lives? This question is left up for debate, and that is ultimately what makes one’s thoughts keep returning to Nocturnal Animals in the aftermath of seeing it; a direct like-for-like symbolism between the people in the novel and the people in the film would have been tedious. It’s a film with huge scope, concurrently addressing the function of remorse and revenge, what it means to be an artist, and what it means to be a man and a woman in modern society.
This last aspect, particularly in relation to power, strength and weakness, is well explored. In one of the film’s flashbacks we see Susan in her early twenties, being lectured by her pearl-wearing, arch-Republican mother (here Laura Linney, stealing the show) on why she should not marry Edward. However, Susan’s mother is not concerned that she will fail in her duties as angel in the house to Edward as husband, instead she foresees that Susan will lose respect for him as her career success eclipses his, because Edward is too ‘weak’. Susan baulks at this; of course she does not want or expect strength from a husband, as a modern woman. And yet her mother’s predictions are borne out: Edward is too weak for her. It feels like a realistic portrayal of an urban, middle-class society in which it is no longer expected that women will grow up to become somebody’s wife, rather that they have duties to their own potential and must therefore find a man who is strong enough to be their ‘equal’.
And so Susan does leave Edward, for another man in fact, and aborts her child with Edward to boot. This last detail seems to be the most painful blow to Edward, and the pain he wants Susan to feel when he sends her his manuscript (which, in a slightly groan-inducing metaphor, gives her a paper-cut when she takes it out of the box). Edward writes his protagonist’s evolution into the man that Edward knew Susan didn’t see in him: the protector, a paradigm of classic, physically-powerful masculinity. This parallel is driven home by Jake Gyllenhaal’s Tony and Edward, who become closer in appearance as the film goes on: Tony shaving his beard, for instance. There is a moment in the plot of the novel when Tony can intervene in the events leading up to the murders but chooses not to out of spur-of-the-moment cowardice. This failure to live up to what he expects of himself as a man drives his revenge. Edward, it seems, also sees himself as having had his family taken away from him, due in some way to his own weakness, a weakness he is determined to shake off.
Edward’s power over Susan is derived from his creativity, the very thing for which Susan doubted his capacity. Susan, by contrast, is a curator of a gallery; her work involves facilitating the creativity of other people. In a flashback sequence, we see Edward telling Susan what he thought of her in their schooldays, and she replies that he must have enormous potential as a writer because he has managed to make her into a character herself: imposing his idea of Susan onto her, which she believes bears little resemblance to who she actually is. It is possible, therefore, to watch this film and interpret it as a celebration of the genius male writer putting an uncreative, unimaginative woman back in her place; rewriting their story with himself as the hero. I would argue, however, that we are not invited to admire the mighty masculine power of Edward’s words to hold thrall over a woman who thought she was too good for him. That interpretation also needlessly romanticises the talent of the male writer-artist over that of the successful gallery owner. Rather, the film is an exploration of the impact that the re-emergence of past lives and loves can have on any person when they are unhappy.
The film’s opening sequence is one of the film’s few flaws: a slow motion montage of vastly overweight, naked middle-aged women, their bodies roiling and lurching across the screen. It turns out that this is part of an artwork commissioned by Susan and, while it is an arresting spectacle, you’d be hard pressed to draw any kind of meaningful link between these opening credits and the subject matter of the film itself, and for that it’s probably the weakest moment.
That said, the ending, too, has left some viewers dissatisfied, but this dissatisfaction is surely the point. As well touching on the phenomenon of men imposing a narrative onto the lives of women, Nocturnal Animals is also about how we do the same thing to our own lives. It is crucial, therefore, that the ending that Susan wants to engineer by being reunited with Edward is denied her when he never shows up at the restaurant. Edward has ‘won’. But has he really? At the end of the novel Tony, as Edward’s cipher, has been blinded in the process of avenging the murder of his family (‘an eye for an eye’, we are expected to deduce), and kills himself. Tony does get his own back, and Edward gets his revenge on Susan by writing the novel and standing her up, but these victories are ultimately pyrrhic: the damage that has been done, in both the world of the novel and in Susan and Edward’s relationship, cannot be undone. All in all, Nocturnal Animals is an extraordinarily assured second film. If he needs another seven years to turn out something else of this calibre, we should be happy to wait.