“Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful.”
This is the shared wisdom of an eccentric art aficionado, Carlos (Michael Sheen), in Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals (2016). Carlos references the junk art culture as he delivers advice to his friend, Susan (Amy Adams). She is a frustrated artist, with many regrets in life. Susan is the victim of a society that is hooked on junk culture and the instantly gratifying consumerism that pervades it. In his hauntingly melancholy and psychological thriller, Ford exposes the human tragedy that results from carelessly discarding anything or anybody with flaws. Ford skillfully employs exquisite use of color, art and interwoven stories to impress this message upon the audience. The irony is that contrary to Carlos’ words, it is through Susan’s deeply personal experience of literature and art that she awakens to the full, painful acknowledgement of her failings and shallow life.
While Susan’s husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), is out of town “on business” cheating on her, she reads Nocturnal Animals, a novel draft surprisingly sent to her by her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), the late-blooming author. Edward dedicates the book to Susan, titling it with one of his ascribed terms for her. As Susan becomes engrossed in reading the draft, she symbolically experiences the devastating terror she imposed upon Edward years ago when she left the struggling writer and aborted their child. Ford masterfully intertwines three tales: the enactment of Edward’s novel in Susan’s mind, her anxiety-ridden reflection upon the past life with Edward, and her current unfulfilled existence. The anguish of Susan’s recollection mirrors the horrific rape and murder in the novel. Susan regrets having tossed aside a creative bond with a romantic dreamer for a superficial marriage to a “handsome and dashing” businessman. In his Nocturnal Animals novel, Edward reveals — through the main character, Tony — that he has overcome his weaknesses and the wrongs perpetrated upon him in the past. Capturing all the heightened emotion of these three tales, and for dramatic contrast, Ford prolifically uses the color red.
First, red curtains and carpet appear in the background of Susan’s junk art installation as the film begins. Red represents the passion and pride of flamboyant women versus the rather cold, steel-grey life of picture-perfect Susan. An ominous (and red) West Texas sky foreshadows the looming danger which Tony faces and his ultimate revenge. Most notably, red is the color of the couch on which Tony’s murdered wife and daughter lie. Susan’s terrified reading of Edward’s novel on her red couch mirrors that image. Tony meets Lieutenant Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) for the first time in front of a red Budget Inn sign, foreshadowing Andes’ red-blooded vigilantism, characteristic of West Texas. The lead criminal, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), wears a red ring taken from one of his previous victims, as if it’s a trophy. It symbolizes Ray’s evil, twisted passion for killing, his feeling of superiority over women and his violent rage. The many instances of red in the film starkly contrast the green dress which Susan wears when she attempts to reunite with Edward.
In addition to color, Ford strategically uses art in Nocturnal Animals. Ford’s style of visual communication is deeply aligned with that of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Both films are noir psychological thrillers, mixed with arthouse sensibilities. After Susan begins reading Edward’s novel, her art collections begins to affect and stimulate her mind in an unprecedented way. Art, her livelihood, which she tells Carlos means nothing, suddenly possesses deep meaning. She pensively stares at a painting of a calf in a tank, pierced with a dozen arrows and cable-tied to a steel post. It has an almost suspended animation look about it. The fitting name of this eerie painting by Saint Sebastian is “Exquisite Pain,” well suited to the film. Upon staring at this piece, Susan’s facial expression is one of concern and dread. On one level, the painting mirrors the horrors that occur within the world of Edward’s novel. On a more personal level, the installation represents Edward’s aborted child and Susan’s guilt.
The next piece of artwork that Susan encounters is a black colored canvas, with the word “REVENGE” in bold and harsh white letters. What makes the piece “artistic” is the placement of the Es in a vertical stack, leaving the R, V and G on the right and the N to the left. The implication is that E stands for Edward and the painting is telling Susan that he has written the Nocturnal Animals novel as revenge. To further convey this idea, Ford uses a medium shot and has Susan stop almost immediately after passing under the Es.
The most poignant art piece is Richard Misrach’s painting entitled “Desert Fires #153.” It captures the multiple layers of tension in the film: the fear and terror in Edward’s novel, Susan’s past dissatisfaction with Edward’s unprolific career and the unfaithful emptiness of her current marriage. In the painting, the man’s demented smile, with fire raging behind him, captures the film’s many elements of craziness: the insane pleasure Ray gets from killing people in Edward’s novel, the absurdity of the art world and the fruition of a mother’s prediction that Susan would become just like her.
Ford’s thoughtful interweaving of art and story is complemented by his scene editing. The interwoven narrative style of Nocturnal Animals is most effective during the shower and bathing sequences. The first occurs right after the death of Tony’s family. He’s in a cheap motel tub, with harsh, gritty lighting. Meanwhile, Susan is in the tub of her lavish residence with cool, dark lighting. Both are in mental anguish, but Tony is emotionally distraught while Susan’s lighting suggests melancholy. The second split-shower scene depicts the characters absorbed in self-evaluation, reflecting more on their troubles and evaluating their next actions. In the final bathing moment, only Susan is in the tub. Tony is on the ground dying. Tony’s death, though accidental, follows a strong act of bravery which evidences a rebirth of sorts for Edward, the author. Likewise, Susan’s heavy breathing and immediate rise from the tub (in similitude with Tony dying) is characteristic of a phoenix rising from the ashes. She is reborn to a new sense of what matters in life.
Throughout the film, this notion of what is valuable and important is visited several times. The junk culture theme (representative of a materialistic, wasteful society) is featured in one of Nocturnal Animals’ most haunting scenes. Susan looks at real-time video of her associate’s baby on the woman’s cell phone, horrified with the hallucination of the novel’s criminal, Ray, leaping out at her. Susan drops the phone in fear. Her associate’s response is more of careless annoyance than of anger. She tells Susan that a new phone is coming out next week and will just get a replacement. This parallels Susan’s abortion of her child fathered by Edward and the replacement sired by Hutton. More directly, the junk culture mentality is attacked when Susan recalls hearing Edward’s pleading words before she leaves him: love thrown away might never be regained.
By ending Nocturnal Animals with Susan sitting alone at a fancy Los Angeles restaurant (with the tears of pain, rejection and regret in her eyes), Ford leaves the audience with little hope for the character. Her ex-husband stands her up, slapping her in the face with his novel of revenge. There is no chance that Susan’s current marriage to Hutton will turn around and bring her happiness. She stares ahead with no sense of direction or solution. There is no doubt that Susan will again have a restless night, remaining a nocturnal animal. With great color, style and technique, Ford haunts the audience with the disappointments of our absurd world. His dramatic style may be enough to awaken viewers to change their values and lives accordingly.
Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.