Fashion-designer turned film-maker Tom Ford’s second feature film Nocturnal Animals (2016) is tightly packaged with two contrasting story lines. One is about a sad woman leading vacuous, bourgeois life whose inner pain doesn’t appear on her stiff face. The other is about a man tripping through the dirty, dry ‘real’ world whose existential pain twists his body and emotions to make life a whole lot messier. “Our world is lot less painful than the real world” are the wise words said to insomniac, wealthy art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) in the earlier part of the narrative. The pain of ‘real world’ is actually equated with experiencing physical violence. Susan with all her emotional dislocation may find solace in the fact that she is only touched by emotional violence. Yet, as she learns, violence – whatever its form – is a bane to the human condition.
Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. In the novel/movie’s universe Susan is ‘real’ and Tony is ‘fictional’. Middle-aged Susan is married to a wealthy but emotionally distant husband Hutton (Armie Hammer). One day, she receives a package from ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Edward wanted to be a writer and Susan’s own skepticism about his literary aspirations caused a rift between them. Susan’s desire for a more structured (wealthy) lifestyle is also another reason. She has left him in a brutal manner after staying married for two years. Susan has tried to contact him all these years without any good results. Now Edward has sent her the manuscript of his soon-to-be-published novel titled ’Nocturnal Animals’ and he has dedicated it to Susan. The insomniac Susan who has no one to keep her company puts on her spectacles, lays on a plush sofa and starts reading the novel.
Texan Tony Hastings is making a trip on the night to West Texas with his wife and teenage daughter India. Tony is a simple, fragile husband/dad who is terrorized by three malicious rednecks – Lou, Turk and the leader Ray Marcus (Aaron-Taylor Johnson). It’s a sequence that’s as harrowing as the one from Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), peppered with some Lynchian ingredients. Susan closes the manuscript at times, overwhelmed by the ‘real’ pain inflicted on the seemingly good family. She catches her breath and in brief flashbacks thinks of the pain she has caused upon Edward in the past. In Edward’s Nocturnal Animals, Tony’s wife and daughter are abducted. He is dumped at the middle of nowhere. Next day, with the help of hard-nosed police detective Roberto Andes (Michael Shannon) Tony traces the abductor’s place, finding the neatly arranged naked dead bodies of his wife and daughter.
Ray is a monster. There’s no thread in Edward’s story to portray him as complex figure. There’s nothing humane about Ray. We want him to be killed and possibly in the most cruel way. Circumstances lead Tony to receive the unbridled help of Andes (who is actually dying of lung cancer). When the law fails to uphold justice, the duo become ready to deliver it. May be vengeance and the violence involved will provide an emotional catharsis for Tony. If not, at least it will bring satisfaction for those reading this pulp fiction. Surprisingly, retribution only brings self-destruction and self-punishment to Tony. The violence doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t soothe the ‘real’ pain. Tony sinks down with monstrous Ray into the ocean of death. And, as they say, ‘Death is the fairest thing. It takes all kind – the good, and the cruel’. What does ‘fictional’ Tony’s plight got to do with ‘real’ Susan? Why Edward wants Susan to read his novel? What’s the connection between devastating violence faced by Tony and emotional bruise held by Edward (both played by Gyllenhaal)? And what’s with the enigmatic ending?
Nocturnal Animals gives a very interesting movie experience during the second-viewing, since I was able to de-construct a lot of obvious parallels, which seemed like cryptic code in the first-time watch. Director/writer Tom Ford could be accused of being cold & calculated and for not deeply penetrating the character's emotional surface. These are the kind of accusations often associated with the works of Stanley Kubrick. Yes, the narrative is so neatly tailored with visuals and themes tightly wrapped around. Like Susan’s style-over-substance lifestyle, the film makes a rigid, awesome-looking statement, devoid of profound substance. May be it’s too on-the-nose (like the exhibition of ‘Revenge’ art to suggest what it’s all about). But still Nocturnal Animals is a highly intriguing roller-coaster ride. The highly challenging, jarring visual juxtapositions and the pricking pain of emotional violence in the final sequence are wonders to behold.
I haven’t read the novel. But it feels like a perfect adaptation that flawlessly fits into the film-maker’s singular visual language. Tom Ford has made some courageous choices with the script, especially in the design of opening sequences. Old, over-weight, naked women gyrate inside a big box, holding sparkling fireworks. The sagging breasts of these cheering woman teeters here and there, unlike the perfectly calibrated frames of Tom Ford. What does the creator of this live ‘art’ trying to showcase? If art mirrors life, Susan may be trying to tell how there isn’t much difference between her soul-crushing, beautiful-looking life and the wobbling naked flesh which is immediately deemed as ‘ugly’. It’s her cry of despair against the junk culture.The menace in the ‘fictional’ universe is elegantly mixed with the emotional bruise of ‘real’ in many occasions. The image of two reddish-orange haired corpses lying in a red sofa is juxtaposed with a similar arrangement of Susan’s living daughter. The bright red-light that falls on Edward’s face is gracefully cut to similar shot involving Tony. Similar to the interrelation between naked flesh and Susan’s existence in the opening scene, these artistic choices finely expresses the transition in and out of the ‘fictional’ and ‘real’ universe.
Loss, betrayal, and vengeance are the primary themes of the movie. However, the most interesting aspect for me is the theme of art resonating with emotional reality of its consumers. In a brief flashback, Susan criticizes Edward’s story for being so much about himself. Edward’s novel written nearly two decades after his separation with Susan is also about him. Edward just takes all the emotional violence that was inflicted upon him and passes it onto fictional character, employing a much hard-hitting set-up. Edward has also lost his wife and daughter to an intruder. Of course, it’s nothing compared to the brutal loss of ‘fictional’ Tony. Through the revenge fantasy in the novel, Edward is not only exorcising his own emotional pain, but also criticizing himself for allowing the rift to happen. Tony shouting at Andes for not ‘protecting’ his family and Ray calling Tony ‘weak’ are exaggerated manifestations of what Edward felt after the breakup with Susan.
While Tony’s revenge plan is slightly sloppy and totally self-destructive, Edward’s plan is so calculative and emotionally cathartic (it looks like that). The bloody corpse of Ray may be a much-preferred, cathartic sight than the image of lonely Susan sipping her cocktail in the classy restaurant. But Edward is the one who serves his 'revenge' cold to Susan. The revenge in the ‘real’ world may not seem much in terms of dynamic visuals as the vengeful action in the ‘fiction’. Nevertheless, it’s the only kind Edward could achieve. Through the devastating tale of Tony, he has kind of won her back (Susan leaving her wedding ring is some kind of sign, isn’t it?). For Susan, the novel feels real and truthful than the empty life. By making her sit alone in the emptying restaurant, Edward makes her to confront the deepening void. For some, this rejection may seem to be a trivial matter, but for Susan the unoccupied chair in front of her is materialization of the existential emptiness. The brunt of emotional violence lies deep beneath the exterior surface that’s sipping expensive cocktails.
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (117 minutes) is an artfully composed, devilishly clever tale of loss and revenge. It’s nesting doll narrative and awesome ensemble cast demonstrates how violence slashes more than skin deep.