Leaving the theatre, I felt I was never going to smile again. I had been walking for about half an hour before I reached home, feeling absolutely numb and hurt by what I had been witnessing for the past 2 hours. “Nocturnal Animals” is an incredible and a dark film, with a three-dimensional storytelling structure, an incredible cast, and an emotionally charged score by Abel Korzeniowski. Tom Ford calls it a “cautionary tale” and with good reason still, I will call it “the lurking nightmare of missing your one chance for happiness in life”.
The film is a thriller and a strong, pure, and piercing drama about regret, revenge, and unfulfilled love. The storylines are directed with frenetic energy that is complemented by beautiful images and sounds. The film’s pulse is unnerving due to the unconcealed, rough reality that is artfully and brutally crafted by Ford, whose second work lacks the elements that made people accuse him of being a pretentiously stylised filmmaker in his first work, “A Single Man” (2009).
The film was adapted by Ford himself from the 1993 novel, “Tony and Susan” by Austin Wright. Admittedly, it demands considerable talent and ability from both the director/writer and the cast to convey the intertwined storylines with clarity and undisturbed flow of emotion. Therefore, I am happy to say that despite its complexity and richness, the film is incredible in the sense that the details and allegories that were carefully placed across the narrative evoke pervasive emotions.
Amy Adams breaths life into Susan, an art gallery owner who leads an affluent life who represents the image of an accomplished and stylish woman (a role model for the western civilisation, perhaps?). One day she receives a manuscript of the first book that her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) wrote and has dedicated to her. Susan barely gets any sleep at nights, so he used to call her a nocturnal animal, and that is how he named his novel. The ex-couple hasn’t had any contact for the past 19 years, and we learn from Susan that Edward was unwilling to talk to her when she contacted him 2 years prior. Susan is unfulfilled with her job and unhappy in her marriage (her cheating and cold husband, Hutton is Armie Hammer). She starts reading the novel in her stylish, lavish yet empty and hollow home when everyone is gone for the weekend.
The story in the book follows a peaceful Texan (like Edward, and Tom Ford..), Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife and daughter through a nighttime road trip in the middle of nowhere. At one point, they are harassed and forced out the road by another car whose passengers are meant to turn their life into a horrific nightmare. The sequence of the scenes that follow, I believe are one of the most disturbing and tense in cinema, as they are filled with agony and suspense in a roughly realistic background. The next morning finds Tony devastated in the company of Detective Andes, portrayed by Michael Shannon, following the trails of the previous night’s incidents. A year after, Tony has a chance to avenge his family but that would mean that he needs to redefine himself and his limitations.
3 stories: Reality (Present – Past): Susan reads Edward’s novel and expects to meet him during his business trip in L.A. shortly. Interwoven into real life and fictitious events, we see the flashbacks of Susan and Edward’s relationship. Fantasy: The story of the novel unfolds between the real events and flashbacks. Viewers are called to make sense of the parallelism between the protagonists’ past relationship and Tony’s painful story.
My curiosity was piqued right from the beginning, when Susan receives the novel. I wondered what were the events that led to their separation that spurred his inspiration for a book. Having watched the film, I realise that it wasn’t so much the reason of their break-up, as to its consequences, meaning the psychological impact it had in his life (and hers..). The book works as her punishment and his revenge.
“Do you feel your life has turned into something you never intended?”- Susan
Susan projects power, accomplishment and composure. Her younger self however, wished to break free from the conformity of bourgeoisie, and passionately declared that she was completely different from her mother. She chooses to embrace the way Edward perceives her to be and she finds liberation and self-esteem by his side.
In contrast to Susan, Edward is confident about his calling to be a writer, he is also thoughtful and very sensitive, which is the opposite of what Susan has been brought up into. He reminds Susan that she has what it takes to be an artist herself and introduces her into a less pragmatic and sensible way of living. Susan’s initial instinct is to embrace the unknown beauty of freedom and self-acceptance, and so decides to marry him. Initially, she is called to justify the marriage to her mother, but later on (2 years approximately..) she has to justify it to herself, as she feels unhappy in it, despite her love for Edward.
Is it inevitable to turn into our mothers?
I do not believe that “We all eventually turn into our mothers.” (says Susan’s mother, played by Laura Linney), but I do believe that our mother’s (and father’s) voice does not leave us throughout our adult life. It is our job to seek our true self, buried under numerous years of constant influence and manipulation (conscious or unconscious) by our parents, in order to set ourselves free and find the life that suits us best, not others.
Our heroine, Susan made a step toward her truth, then she got scared when her real life did not resemble the one she was “supposed” to have, so she left her loved one and found a more “suitable” match, and career path. Nineteen years later, Susan has accomplished things that have definitely made her mother proud. She feels “ungrateful not to be happy” in her privileged life but she is simply not! The truth is that her love for Edward has never left her, nor the idea of the life they could have had together. She burdened with guilt for having given into fear and doubt, about not having believed in him the way he believed in her, and for having robbed him of the chance to become a father when she aborted their child (“I believe this is going to hunt me for the rest of my life.”~ Susan).
What scared me the most?
The extent of feelings: Edward experienced excruciating pain from the ending of their relationship, which led him to the darkest places of his soul where he was able to conceive his allegorical, haunting story. The violence and pain that I witnessed in the scene where the family confronts the 3 troublemakers won’t leave me anytime soon. My stomach was tight and I could barely breathe while I watched those relentless psychopaths attack and ruin the lives of an innocent and happy family. I can only imagine that the helplessness we see in Tony, is the same as the one Edward felt. It is unsettling to think that someone might could feel so devastated by the end of a relationship that these feelings of anger and loss would translate into a story of such despair and agony.
Misjudge love, and make the wrong call: I must admit that I have never felt so strongly about anything/anyone, let alone a romantic relationship that could instantly evoke identification with the characters. However, the film conveys sentiment with such intensity that it affects even those who like myself, do not have a similar story in their past. In addition, it helped that I can perfectly relate to Susan who struggles between what her gut tells her, and what cynicism and borrowed logic dictates her to do.
It is believed that love is rare and thus, precious. It is scary to realise how easy it is to underestimate your partner, reduce the importance of “love” and thus, reject your feelings (as well as your partner’s). To make matters worse, it is also commonly held that second chances in life can be rare, which significantly reduces our chance to find happiness. I might be slightly pessimistic in that respect but don’t you find major decisions in life to be intimidating? Some people are firm in their decision-making but what about those who struggle with making their mind? (even about what chocolate bar they are going to buy.. they pick one, eat it and then regret they haven’t bought the other one…). I wonder, how willing we are nowadays to fight for our relationships? In a time where intimacy and sex are acquired quickly and easily, are we perhaps consumed with our perception of the “ideal relationship” that makes all others (the real ones…) seem expendable? Are we always on the look for the next, the better partner that is around the corner?
Edward’s plead to Susan stayed with me:
“When you love someone you work it out, you have to be careful with it, you don’t just throw it away. You might never get it again.”
I feel the film presents a clear warning as to how we should treat the ones we love, as apparently true love is rare. It took Edward 20 years to let go of the ghosts of his past, and being a writer he found a rather creative way to do so but imagine an ordinary person trying to manage the psychological burden, and struggling to discover a non-destructive way to release the pain… In addition, Susan’s story shows that when you launch on a new path, having left ruins behind you, chances are that it will haunt you for the rest of your life and will sabotage your potential happiness.
My views on guilt is that we should rip ourselves from what we were taught to feel remorse about and reshape our moral code. However, Susan’s guilt is not distant and moralistic but alive and personal. She is guilty about the abortion, and the impact of her cruelty towards Edward but she is mainly guilty about the life she made for herself, in other words about ignoring her true feelings.
Despite his great suffering Tony still remains a “good man”, which is mistakenly perceived as a weakness of character (especially in Texas…). In the end he kills Ray, the alpha of the criminal group (exceptionally portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, whose powerful performance reminded me of the obsessive tension that Tom Hardy projects on-screen), and accidentally (or not?) kills himself. It is questionable whether he would ever be able to get over such a violent and cruel part of his life, the loss of his loved ones and the person he has become therefore, his redemption comes with his death.
It is evident that in Edward’s mind Susan’s betrayal takes the dimension of Ray’s actions towards Tony however, I believe that Susan can identify with both Ray and Tony. In the beginning of the film, Susan admits that she has been thinking intensely about her ex-husband, which means that she had already started putting things together as to the reason why her life feels so empty and cold. By the time she reads the end of the book, it is beyond doubt that she experiences the same feelings as Tony who cries in despair that he “should have tried harder to protect his family”.
The cross that Tony is wearing, is the same cross that Susan has around her neck, and the red couch the Tony’s wife and daughter were found raped and murdered belongs to the apartment where they used to live together (not to mention that when Susan calls her daughter, she imagines her lying in the same position as the women in the novel). I loved the scenes where the parallelism is drawn between Susan’s and Tony’ s reality, especially the one where we seem them posing as tormented statues in the bathtub.
I feel that Edward is aware that Susan is unhappy and regrets her decision thus, Tony is the expression of her own suffering as well. Despite the fact that Edward was deemed the weak one, it is Susan that was betrayed by her own self, due to her weakness to make a leap of faith and trust he instincts instead of the cynical world around her. As a result, just like Tony, Susan was deprived of her child and husband that the nocturnal animal took away, and in order to redeem herself and reach a catharsis she needs to “kill herself”, meaning the person she pretends to be and has been responsible for her bad decisions. By following Tony’s (and Edward’s) example, she will be free of her past regrets and will be able to find peace in her present life.
The closing scene is the proof that Edward truly did let go of his past and is no longer concerned or affected by Susan. And it is the perfect vengeance because during the hours that she is waiting for him to show up at the restaurant, she feels more and more convinced of her horrible, incorrigible mistake.