“Nocturnal Animals” is a revenge drama from director and fashion designer Tom Ford (“A Single Man”); starring Amy Adams (“Arrival”) and Jake Gyllenhaal (“Prisoners”) in lead roles.
The most striking aspect of the film is its visual style. “Nocturnal Animals” is a joy to watch, giving off an almost dream-like quality as two separate stories meld together, one bathed in light and glamour, the other in darkness and squalor. This is clearly intentional as Susan (Adams) is often sleep deprived, disillusioned by her lot and tired of the superficial nature of her relationship and her job. The majority of the movie takes place from her perspective, as we watch her live out her everyday life whilst imagining events which take place in a book written by her ex-husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal).
The film splits into two narratives, the aforementioned fiction written by Edward (as imagined by Susan) and the real world events that Susan experiences. The book is dedicated to Susan and as such it’s aptly titled “Nocturnal Animals”, referring to a nickname that Edward used to call her when they were still together. In a letter at the start of the film Edward explains to Susan that she provided the inspiration behind the story, and this is clear throughout the film as the lead character in the book (imagined in Susan’s mind to look exactly the same as Edward) is left shattered by the loss of his wife.
Initially Edward’s tale may appear to be removed entirely from reality; after all, the events taking place in the story never actually happened to either Edward or Susan. However, it’s obvious as the film progresses that scenes are cut together deliberately to show that Susan’s actions were the cause of the pain within the narrative, and that the fiction of the book is merely a dramatised allegory for the real-life events that the pair experienced over the course of their short marriage.
The narrative is made more emotive by its difficult subject matter, and thus Edward is able not only to express the pain that he felt but also to give Susan a taste of it. In Edward’s reality Susan really did evoke these feelings – she took the idea of his wife from him, killing the woman that he loved, and (SPOILER ALERT) from Edward’s perspective she also quite literally killed his child.
By the end of the movie Susan is aware of the purpose behind the book; she’s moved by it and to some degree she feels accountable for Edward’s pain. She realises that what she did wasn’t fair on Edward and wonders whether or not she made a mistake by leaving him for her new husband (Hutton played by Armie Hammer), who she rightly believes is being unfaithful to her.
(MORE SPOILERS) Once Susan has finished reading Edward’s book that aspect of the film comes to a close and we are left in the real world with Susan. She arranges to meet up with Edward for a reconciliation of sorts, and he seems glad to have been asked. However, the film closes with Susan alone in a restaurant, glamour all around her, yet undeniably alone. This is a poignant and interesting conclusion – it’s understated but in a way that fits perfectly with what has preceded it, and it gives meaning to the film.
Upon first view I was unsure whether or not I enjoyed the ending – I understood why it was chosen and what it signified, but I couldn’t decide whether or not I liked it. I suppose that I was hoping for something more; perhaps for Edward to show up with a new wife, or for him to triumphantly throw a drink in Susan’s face. But, having had time to think, I’d say that the conclusion of the film actually tied everything together impeccably. Edward had his revenge; he’d proven Susan wrong by writing something about himself that was meaningful and soulful, and he’d had this tale validated by the fact that it moved Susan enough to want to see him again. He used the book to turn the tables on his ex-wife by leaving her alone in the life that she chose over him; he made her feel everything he had felt, and then he abandoned her just as she had done to him.
At the end of the movie Susan needs Edward, but he doesn’t need her – Edward has moved on from despair whilst Susan has wallowed in it. Susan has got what she thought she wanted but she’s found that it’s hollow; whereas after losing everything he thought he wanted Edward has ultimately found his voice through pain. This is the essence of the movie, and it’s a message which is perfectly realised through the sombre yet triumphant final scene of the film.
The performances of Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams make the nuances of the story much more clear and emotional, and together they make the film better than it would’ve been in less capable hands. The same can be said for Tom Ford who directs the film with confidence, giving both narratives a distinct visual style whilst maintaining a consistent tone throughout. I should also mention that this is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s best performance since “Kick-Ass”, and that he makes for a very entertaining (but slightly cartoonish) villain.
Overall, I felt that “Nocturnal Animals” was a captivating and beautiful experience, and it worked perfectly as a whole. It’s a wonderfully realised revenge film on two fronts, as Edward’s book is a tale of revenge in itself but there’s also a calculated act of vengeance taking place in the real world as Edward uses his story to emotionally torment Susan, and thus it works incredibly well.