Nocturnal Animals is about a woman, Susan (Amy Adams), who reads into a book written by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). “Reads into” because she sees in the book a metaphor for how she made Edward feel when she ended their marriage some twenty years earlier. The film shifts back and forth between present day events involving Susan and her passionless marriage and life, twenty years earlier when she met and married Edward, and the book’s narrative, where Gyllenhaal also plays the novel’s protagonist. These transitions are easy to follow due to director of photography Seamus McGarvey’s different shooting and lighting styles in each segment, the divergent locations of each segment, and the different tone of each segment.
The alternating tone is most jarring. The present day part of the story is set within the haute world of fine art in Los Angeles. Susan and her current husband (Armie Hammer) are art dealers, and they attend dinner parties with Hollywood royalty. These scenes are made mostly of partial close-ups and elliptical editing. Susan’s life has no constitution, no integrity. The conversations in these scenes are stilted and fake. People say what they are “supposed to say,” and though Susan seems to want to speak honestly and candidly about what she is feeling, she is incapable of pushing past the artifice in both herself and in her acquaintances. Edward’s novel becomes an escape for Susan into a world where people are allowed to speak freely about what they feel.
Edward’s novel is an escape for us, the film’s audience, as well. Those early scenes in Susan’s art world are painful, and, fearing the entire film was written like this, I almost left within the first fifteen minutes of the movie. The book scenes are alive, full of hand-held camera energy, wide-framed landscape shots, and high-stakes action and drama. Characters barely speak audibly in the present day scenes. They shout in the book scenes. The book scenes are also anchored by Michael Shannon and Jake Gyllenhaal, two actors with such intense eyes, you fear the air is going to ignite into flame between them. (The flash-back scenes are gauzy and romantic, composed of medium distance framing and two-shots. They offer a pleasant reprieve from the extremes of both other timelines.)
Nocturnal Animals was adapted for the screen (from Austin Wright’s novel, Tony and Susan) and helmed by fashion designer and now two-time director Tom Ford. Ford brings a heightened aesthetic awareness to an otherwise adolescent narrative construct. The implication that creative works are mere metaphors for the emotional hang-ups of their creators is the stuff of undergraduate creative writing seminars. Certainly, that’s not never true, but it isn’t solely true, and Nocturnal Animals doesn’t leave any room for any other interpretation of what a creative work means. Ford’s direction of this film keeps things interesting even when the material itself is infuriating. (Given the film’s construct, what am I to make of the film itself? Is this nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by Ford to work out his own emotional issues? Did he love and leave a person years ago and carry the guilt with him all this time? I jest, but you can see how the metaphor about metaphors quickly falls apart.)
Ford also brings an awareness of the ways our attempts to fashion a “perfect” life can buffer us from real life. I appreciate that. The pursuit of the self is empty, cold, stilted. The pursuit of others and the sacrifice of the self for the well-being of others is enlivening. Life is found in love. Love is given. Edward’s book becomes a kind of love-gift to Susan. It reignites passion in her life and enables her to see her anesthetized life for what it is. The ending of this film doesn’t seem happy on the surface, but it is meant to be, because it involves the full expenditure and death of empty pursuits and false passions. It’s melancholy for sure, but it shows how death can be a kind of grace when it is followed by resurrection, aesthetic resurrection in this case, but, metaphorically, I’d argue, by other kinds of resurrection as well.
We watch movies like we wear clothes. We pour ourselves into them. We fill them out. We allow them to shape us. We embody them. Most of us don’t wear high fashion. We look at it. We puzzle over it. We react to it in writing and in conversation. In the end, Nocturnal Animals is high fashion. It creates a compelling conversation, but it’s difficult to wear.
(Also, Nocturnal Animals includes a controversial-by-design opening scene that feels very disconnected from the rest of the film. It’s complicated, and if you see the movie, you should read about the scene here, and decide for yourself how you feel about it.)