“Nocturnal Animals”, released in 2016, is the second film by designer Tom Ford. The champion of chic porn who was an ultra-sensitive Texan child wrote the screenplay of the movie, based on Austin Wright’s novel “Tony and Susan”.
The film is a dark gem, carried by the interpretation of the two main actors and the captivating music of Abel Korzeniowski.
The rest of this article is full of spoilers, be aware dear reader.
Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams) is a renowned gallery owner living in L.A. Despite her obvious professional success, an attractive husband and a more than luxurious lifestyle, Susan is slowly falling into depression. The appearances that she struggles to preserve hardly hide her growing disinterest in her profession, the estrangement of her husband Hutton, the financial difficulties of her couple and her regular insomnia.
One morning she receives out of the blue the manuscript of a novel soon to be published, written by her ex-husband Edward, whom she has not seen for 19 years. The novel is dedicated to Susan and is called “Nocturnal Animals”, the nickname Edward kindly gave her, when she already was a young night owl.
Susan immerses herself in the reading of the manuscript and three narrative arcs coexist and soon respond to each other: Susan’s present life, the fictional story of the novel she is reading and the memories of her past life with Edward (played by Jake Gyllenhaal).
Scenes from these three story arcs intertwine throughout the film and what we see of the novel is what Susan imagines it to be.
The novel features Tony, an American family man on vacation who hits the road with his wife and teenage daughter. Driving at night on a deserted road in Texas, their car is deliberately hit by thugs who force them to stop. Tony’s wife and daughter are forced to ride with their attackers in the family car, as Tony watches helplessly and is abandoned in the desert. The next day, he somehow manages to contact the police. Tony, now aided by Inspector Andes, soon discovers the naked bodies of his wife and daughter on an abandoned red sofa near a shack in the Texas desert. Tony’s wife and daughter were raped and beaten to death. The investigation, which lasts more than a year, leads Inspector Andes to the two thugs still alive: Lou and Ray. Suffering from terminal cancer, he offers Tony to take the law into his own hands because he senses that the murderers will be given light sentences. Tony accepts. The thugs are shot but Tony is injured during the scuffle and he eventually shoots himself, appeased by revenge.
Captivated by the reading of this breathtaking novel, Susan remembers her meeting with Edward, more than twenty years before. Well-born, ambitious – graduated from Yale and Columbia, realistic and cynical, the young Susan had fallen for this Texan young man of modest origin, romantic, sincerely sweet, devoid of social ambition, who wanted nothing else than being a writer.
She herself had wanted to be an artist but had never allowed herself to do so, because of the constant pressure from her conservative family who lived only for appearances and social ambition.
Perfectly aware of the human poverty of her education, her only act of rebellion had been to marry Edward, but their union had slowly deteriorated, Susan being unable to detach herself from her upbringing; Edward persisting in his writing efforts in front of a dismissive wife who ultimately found him weak and untalented. Even though Edward had urged Susan to fight for their relationship, she finally had left him following her secret abortion and her meeting with another man, Hutton. Edward had been brutally presented with this grim reality.
During her fascinated reading of the manuscript, Susan quickly understands the cruel mirror game between her real life with Edward and the ordeal suffered by Tony.
And as Tom Ford’s film presents Tony’s story as read by Susan, it is her imagination that is at work – which explains why Susan lends Edward’s features to Tony (who is also played by actor Jake Gyllenhaal) or why Tony’s wife and daughter are as redheaded as Susan and her daughter (whom she had with Hutton though).
But there is also a lot of Edward in Tony – since a writer only ever writes about himself, as Edward so aptly puts it. The intimate tragedy of Edward, who lost the woman he loved and the child she was carrying, has been transfigured to become the paper nightmare of this father who loses his wife and daughter to the hands of the psychopath and sadistic Ray. Tony’s helplessness on the dark road echoes Edward’s helplessness in front of the clinic where his wife has just had an abortion without telling him. The old model of Ray’s green car is the one Edward sees when Susan tells him she wants to break up with him and the red sofa on which the bodies of Tony’s wife and daughter are artistically lying is the one where Susan is sitting when she criticizes Edward’s lack of talent as a writer. These objects are totems that imprinted on Edward’s retina during particularly difficult moments – which Susan probably did not even notice.
Nevertheless, Susan remains deeply troubled by reading the novel, because it is masterful but also because it forces her to question her life.
Susan tries to figure out why Edward sent and dedicated this manuscript to her, along with an invitation to see each other after all these years. The dedication “For Susan” may seem quite innocent at first, but as she reads, Susan slowly understands that the gift is somewhat poisonous. She will suffer intensely when reading the manuscript and her paper cut when she opens the package already announces it.
Because, if Susan identifies at first with Tony’s redheaded wife, it quickly becomes clear that Edward actually assigns her the role of Ray, the psychopath who deprives Tony of his family.
Edward succeeded in transcending his intimate pain by transfiguring it into a literary masterpiece, by persisting in the artistic path he wished to follow, unlike Susan who preferred social and financial comfort, by selling art rather than creating and marrying a second husband, well-born like her.
Reading the last chapter of the novel, Susan understands that the young Edward died to become a more mature Edward thanks to a cathartic writing, like a Tony who commits suicide at the end of the novel – and that nothing prevents a new Susan from being born.
Susan is presented from the first minutes of the movie as a woman on the verge of personal questioning: she opens up about her personal problems to a worldly society that generally prefers to preserve appearances of happiness and wealth. Emotions, held until then, overwhelm her more and more.
She becomes aware of the suffering that runs almost everywhere, whether in the novel she reads or in the artworks in the midst of which she lives, whether it is a banded bull sculpture, a painting where the word “Revenge” bursts or a photograph of a man held at gunpoint by another.
She is more than doubtful about the quality of the artworks she sells, which no one really looks at – the guests preferring to interact over a glass of champagne and turn their backs on the artworks presented. Contemporary art represents in her eyes a “junk culture”, has become a business like any other and finally illustrates her own renunciation of being an artist.
What Susan took for weakness in a young Edward was just a strong desire for personal fulfillment outside of societal pressures. This supposed weakness is perfectly reflected in Tony, the father unable to defend his wife and daughter against a Ray, who is as violent and manly as the Texas desert that surrounds them. The qualities required to survive in the old Wild West – strength, virility, violence – are ultimately those needed in modern times and Edward seems to be completely deprived of them. And he knows it.
(And I suspect there’s a lot of the director to this antinomy between those values of manliness and strength and a Texas-born and raised Tom Ford, who was, in his own words, “the sensitive kid”).
Edward ultimately knew how to preserve his sensitivity, his desire to realize himself artistically and emotionally while Susan was content with the world of social appearances. One is now locked in a cold and solitary world of polar colors, while the other carries a world made of deep and sometimes violent emotions, with warm colors. One has success in life, but the other is more surely successful at life.
Susan fully comprehends this after reading the manuscript dedicated to her. The lesson is learned, the hard way.
The last scene of the movie, which inevitably recalls Edward Hopper’s painting “Nightawks”, exudes this solitary debacle.
October 28, 2022
Fendi coat and dress – Dior purse and belt – Jimmy Choo sandals