Tom Ford’s second directorial venture, Nocturnal Animals, is a poignant and deeply disturbing story of loneliness, isolation and broken relationships. Based on the novel Tony and Susan (1993) by Austin Wright, the film is told through parallel stories that feature a similar arc of loss and dread. The narrative revolves around Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy gallery owner in Los Angeles who receives a manuscript from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), which he has dedicated to her. Upon reading, she finds similarities between her relationship with Edward and the book’s depiction of a marriage that meets a grisly end.
Ford has previously said that Nocturnal Animals is “a cautionary tale about coming to terms with the choices we make and the life that leaves us with.” Rife with regret, the dual narratives present a metaphorical “what if” scenario, and the violence inherent to neo-noirs and thrillers is used to chart a course of emotional torment, likening the two as similarly destructive. At the heart of it, Nocturnal Animals is about the unknowable — not knowing what the future holds, the inability to know whether or not you made the right decisions, and even the terrifying lack of knowledge about the people closest to you. For instance, not knowing much about their spouse defines the lives of Susan and Edward, and later, Susan and her second husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer).
Nocturnal Animals: What Really Happens?
When Susan receives a manuscript for a novel from her ex-husband, Edward, it prompts her to think about the choices which have led her to her present life. Evidently, the two didn’t part on good terms and this is the first communication they’ve had in two decades. While Edward never remarried, Susan has been married to rich businessman, Hutton Morrow, with whom she leads an affluent, if emotionally empty life. Our first introduction to Susan’s life happens as she leaves her art gallery to go home to her enormous mansion. As she walks through the halls and we view her through giant windows, one gets the sense that the barren nature of her home is synonymous with her internal state. With all her riches, she is emotionally dissatisfied. Her house feels impersonal, as if it were an empty structure and not a home with people living in it.
When she receives Edward’s manuscript, she begins to reminisce about their relationship. The title of the novel, Nocturnal Animals, is based upon Edward’s nickname for her, and dedicated to her as well. The story depicts the lives of the Hastings family, who are brutalized by a group of hitchhikers on a road trip. Tony Hastings (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) escapes while his family is captured. To avenge the subsequent rape and murder of his wife and daughter, Tony sets out to exact vengeance with the help of local sheriff, Bobby Andes.
As Susan continues reading the novel, it becomes clear that Edward’s story is a fictional take on the dissolution of their relationship. As she struggles with her loneliness, guilt and lack of closure, she invites Edward to dinner upon learning that he’s passing through Los Angeles, However, Edward never shows up, and we see Susan waiting for him, alone at an empty table.
What is the Story Really About?
Viewing Nocturnal Animals as a slick revenge thriller repackaged inside an emotional drama is far too reductive. Ford makes use of the dual narratives to present two parallel, and intertwined visions of separation. The “real” narrative presents a story of divorce and unhappy marriages, but it is, arguably, nothing out of the blue. People separate and get divorced all the time. It’s a tale as old as time. In fact, the narrative explicitly displays the incompatibility between romantic Edward and realist Susan, with several characters telling them so. When their marriage finally breaks down, it leaves Edward blindsided and broken. It is also shown that Susan aborts their unborn child. Of course, he cannot really do anything about it, other than stop all contact with his ex-wife and move on with his life.
But, in the fictional world of the novel, Edward’s rage, sorrow and bewilderment at losing his wife and child are aired out through the means of violence. Especially, violence employed in the act of revenge. There is no mistaking the fact that the extreme brutality perpetrated upon, and later, by Tony in the novel are Edward’s ways of coping. It is also interesting that Susan envisions Tony as Edward — it is as if her guilt and confusion regarding their relationship manifests itself in a way that may be more cathartic than the actual events that transpired. With Tony avenging the death of his family, and then dying himself, one gets the sense that an end has been reached, culmination achieved.
But, for Edward and Susan, there is no such grand finale. In art, as with real life, the end of relationships does not always feel final, or even like the end. Separation is torment, and can often take years, if not entire lifetimes to truly get over. In the face of such an estrangement, the novel ending stands as a foil to the emotional violence that Edward must have gone through as his marriage collapsed. Tony is his alter ego, conveying the depths of pain and agony the divorce must have brought.
It is also indicated that Susan pities, or at least feels terrible for her actions towards Edward. “I did something unforgivable,” she says to her assistant. In fact, their relationship is marked by a glaring imbalance. Edward’s naivete is in sharp contrast to Susan’s pragmatism, and he cares greatly about her opinion. So much so, that he grows uncharacteristically bristly when Susan points out flaws in his novel. Similarly, he is not very well to do, while Susan grew up rich and aspires to a life of material comforts. One can easily view these aspects as insecurities that must have gnawed at Edward. Hence, him standing up Susan points to a meeker but realistic form of revenge. While he may not get to beat and shoot his way out of his misery like Tony does, standing up Susan creates a small act of rejection. For the first time, he is the aggressor in their relationship. After having been cast away and isolated in their marriage, he leaves Susan wanting at a moment of deep crisis in her life. One cannot help but think that this is the narrative’s way of punishing her for her infidelities.
Themes and Alternate Readings
This brings me to the third crucial reading of the ending, one that is informed by gender roles. A repeated motif throughout the film is that people around Susan constantly tell her that Edward is weak. This gendered notion of his weakness stems from the fact that he is a romantic idealist, sensitive and doesn’t display an overt aggression associated with cultural performances of masculinity. Neither is he well-to-do.
In a culture deeply informed by gender and capitalist consumer practices, Edward is a liminal figure. Hence, the entirety of his novel, especially the end, can be read as wish-fulfillment. It is also worth noting that Susan leaves him to marry someone who fits the alpha-male bill to a tee. Hutton’s social standing renders him a foil to Edward’s average Joe. This is reflected in his alter ego.
After all, Tony is not a hero, rather he is an everyman who exacts revenge for his family. Through associating the end of Tony’s arc with conventionally masculine violence, Edward unwittingly exorcises his own fears of inadequacy. In this aspect, the act of writing a novel proves rather cathartic.
The Subjectivity of Separation
Furthering this perspective, one could argue that Nocturnal Animals is a story about the disturbing way in which we construct the subject of our fantasies, especially women. Edward makes the mistake of viewing Susan as someone she is not. He does not listen when she tells him that she is not afraid, rather just simply cynical. He romanticizes her and her flaws, refusing to see her as a deeply unhappy, damaged person. Of course, there is only one way this can go. In their delusions, both are rendered deeply isolated and lonely from each other, as well as their deepest desires. The lack of knowledge, being an enigma to each other finally creates the dissolution of their union.
Marriage and Loneliness
Conversely, Susan internalizes her wants and needs. While she is attracted to Edward’s clear-eyed optimism, one gets the sense that there is more at play here. Perhaps she is trying to overcome the traits that render her so similar to her mother. “All women turn into their mothers eventually” her mother tells her, and it is rendered prophetic as Susan leaves someone she cared about to live in affluence and material comfort with Hutton. Even though the film rightfully never vilifies her for this choice, she’s caged herself into an emotionally empty, dissatisfying life.
“Do you ever get the feeling that your life has turned into something you never intended it to be?”
For Susan, her life has turned into a crisis of choice, where she faces equally daunting prospects. Simply put, there seems to be no escape from her internal misery. It is also worth noting that we are only ever shown Susan’s perspective of the divorce and the ensuing events. Even though the narrative does not make her out to be an unreliable narrator, the subjectivity of the creation of a false self upon which she projects her desires is to be taken with a grain of salt. She can neither be truly happy with Edward, nor Hutton. Hence, reminiscing and actively reconstructing the memories of her time with her ex-husband turns into a method of coping, just as writing the novel is cathartic for Edward.
In many aspects, Nocturnal Animals is a lot like Ford’s previous feature, A Single Man. Both the films revolve around refined, deeply conflicted and complex characters with a rich inner life. Both George Falconer and Susan Morrow deal with loss in ways that are not healthy, and do not lead to any actual healing. The stories Ford tells in A Single Man and Nocturnal Animals are companion pieces, almost. Together, they paint a disturbing, if accurate, picture of the dark sides of intimate relationships.
Many might find the ending for Nocturnal Animals rather anticlimactic. A woman being stood up for dinner by her ex-husband is hardly the stuff of hard-boiled revenge fantasies. However, there is something to be said about how apposite it is. If revenge is a dish best served cold, Edward Sheffield certainly knows his way around vengeance. His final act of absence cements Susan’s isolation, just as it was beginning to look like a hopeful second coming for her. In the same breath, it also illustrates the truth about endings. Separation and the end of relationships is messy, not a magical clean break. In the face of such pain, few people get the kind of clean, calm closure that the film falsely promises. For most of us, closure is a pipe dream. What ifs, regrets and unresolved feelings persist long after the person has left and the relationship has ended. Nocturnal Animals finds its emotional pièce de résistance in the murky depths of closure, or the lack of — painting a sorrowful picture of just how lonely people can be.