Nocturnal Animals Round-table
Three Red Savina reviewers—Royce Grubic, Brooke Carlson, and Stephanie Varga—recently shared their impressions of Tom Ford’s gripping and memorable drama, Nocturnal Animals, one of 2016’s best films (an adaptation of the novel Tony & Susan by Austin Wright).
- What is Nocturnal Animals really about?
BC: At its base it is a film about a woman reading a book, which we soon see is vastly more complex and impactful than it sounds. There are not many films like this, but there are some really good ones. The Princess Bride, for example, on the opposite end of the spectrum from this film, is a “read a book” film. Nocturnal Animals is also a murder-mystery and a western. Typical of such genres, it becomes very much a film about men and masculinity.
Yet at a deeper level, Nocturnal Animals is a revenge tragedy, a film about an ex achieving success and enacting revenge. It is also about love and the love human beings have for the past, and for past lovers.
RG: But in the role of reader, however, the woman (Susan, played by Amy Adams) is not so much as a participant here as she is a passive victim of the text ultimately. Instead I would describe it mainly as a film by a writer about a writer—and for writers, although it feels more like a writer’s exercise in self-loathing. Edward and his novelized alter ego Tony (a dual role played by Jake Gyllenhaal) both hate themselves for their fragility. This is paired with an author’s passive aggressive revenge fantasy against non-writers, especially superficial upper class women and visual artists. You’re exactly right about the REVENGE theme: Midway through the film, Susan stares at a painting that consists entirely of those letters. The art-world/gallery scene is rather mercilessly depicted as cold, harsh, and inhuman, as in the very disturbing opening montage. Take that: Susan even cuts herself on the manuscript when opening it. It’s Edward’s weapon. In several scenes, particularly the lingering ending, the camera slowly studies her anxiety and hurt. Edward “writes from the heart,” as he has told her in his note, but what if that heart is wounded and still holds a grudge? She not only left him for another man, she aborted his child.
As that suggests, the main theme, as I see it, is the irreversibility of decisions. There is no forgetting, no forgiving, no do overs. The consequences of some of these decisions are proportionate and make a certain amount of rational sense, as when Susan ditches the romantic idealistic writer for the “handsome and dashing” man (Armie Hammer’s philandering Hutton) and comes to choke on her choice. As her mother knew, she was at heart a materialist; as Susan puts it herself, she lives in the real world and wants more structure. Is she afraid? Unhappy? Did he create a fictitious version of her? Same difference, she craves change and turns away from their love for something seemingly more secure and less complicated only to find empty wealth and loneliness. Her attempt—more like a fancy, and this inner psychological drive gives the plot much of its momentum—to reconnect with Edward is doomed, as he has not forgotten or forgiven her choice; we wonder if there is a second chance for them, but in truth he just wants to rub it in. Other irreversible choices in the story are absurd, however, or at least “flash” decisions and not deliberative moves, such as Tony’s road rage moment that will have fatal consequences, or his foolish choice, half-blinded from an injury, to stumble out into the west Texas sunshine with a gun in his hand.
In some ways, yes, the pen is mightier than the sword in Noctural Animals and this is an homage to the power—in this case through strikingly petty means—of the written word, but it is not mightier than hick rapists or a pistol in the hands of a dufus. “Writing has a way of keeping things alive,” yes, but maybe it should let certain memories and emotions die.
SV: On the surface I would agree that it is about a struggling writer and a love story. But if we look more closely there is an even deeper meaning to the movie. It is saying something about morality and class dynamics—namely, the pure ruthlessness towards other humans required to get what you want (the posh lifestyle) in a dog-eat-dog, capitalist world. The mentality and disregard for human life is no different from the predatorial slaughterhouse mentality of the rapist/murdering plumber Ray and his cronies.
What seems obvious to me is that Ray is representative of Susan and what she did to Edward. The killing of Tony’s wife and daughter in the manuscript is a metaphor for Susan killing their unborn baby and leaving Edward for someone more rich and handsome (maybe it’s subjective to rate Armie Hammer above Jake Gyllenhaal, but that’s the idea). Also, it seems safe to say that Susan and Edward’s story is not unique and the emotional turmoil he experienced is more often than not how “other side of the track”/forbidden love stories turn out in real life.
A slightly more subtle cruelty than that performed by Ray is displayed on multiple occasions in the social circle of the main character, Susan. For example, the art dealer is asked by Susan if she does not trust her nanny, describing a baby monitor she planted in the child’s room. “No, I just hate her,” the art dealer responds matter of factly. While talking about something else but turning to look directly into the eyes of a co-worker who has obvious just received a botched botox-job, Susan says passive aggressively, “Sometimes it’s a good idea not to change things quite so much.” That’s not just the coldness of the art world, it’s the icy chill of the aristocracy.
“What is so strong about Edward?” Susan’s mother asks her. Susan could have said any number of things, but after a moment of being lost for words she comes up with an exceedingly weak statement of “he believes in himself… and he believes in me.” I think this was the first indicator of having lost the battle to her mother’s world.
And then there is the not-so-subtle act of ending her relationship with someone she loves and killing their unborn child out of fear of living below her accustomed lifestyle. A strong theme that is present from the beginning is how Susan perceives her own atrocious mentality. She sees her fear of failure and brief departure from the upper class as being ugly. Her artwork of the naked, morbidly obese dancing women is a first demonstration of this. They dance as if they were beautiful when their demonic glares into the camera show that they know otherwise. Something worth noting is that although part of her perceives her ugly mentality, as it comes out—perhaps subconsciously—in her work, she cannot fully escape the way she was raised and see how it permeates every reaction she makes, as with the Botox comment. She has learned to congratulate herself and revel in small cruelties. Perhaps Edward suspects this and even senses that she found some joy in hurting him through killing their unborn child. I say this because right after the scene of her being at the abortion clinic and seeing Edward there the director jumps to the plumber in the manuscript who says in extreme close-up, “killing is fun. You should try it some time.”
RG: Speaking of “the naked, morbidly obese dancing women,” that really is one of the more disturbing opening montages of any film that I can think of. The grotesque, flabby nudes—all women, it’s worth noting—are mere “subjects” to the artists to be used, exploited, and gawked at like zoo animals or carnival freaks, but it’s not even that level of appreciation: they are just background images for the mingling at the gallery opening. The bouncing meat blobs are hypnotic like a lava lamp. You’re right about the underlying socio-economic class dynamics; that’s a whole other level of analysis that is possible. It’s such a rich film for interpretation (pun intended!).
SV: Also, Royce, going back to what you said about Edward hating himself. It seems more to me that Susan is the one who has a strain of self-loathing. Again, she knows that what she did was ugly and suspects bad karma is coming for her, as illustrated by the scene with the REVENGE picture that you mentioned. She looks at it and asks her co-worker where it came from, not remembering that it was she who had bought it in the first place. It is as if her subconscious mind is warning her of what she knows is on the horizon. And it is this same subconscious warning system that causes her to cut herself on opening the package with the manuscript from Edward. In other words, she knows it’s nothing good so she prevents herself from getting her hopes up. In writing the manuscript, Edward knows her well enough that he is able to mess with this part of her. The violent nature of the manuscript can’t help but make her wonder how far will he take the revenge—thus the hallucination of seeing one of the hick-killers pop up in the baby monitor.
BC: It was all quite a ride, both the text and subtext. I struggled a bit in the end as well with the very question of Edward’s death, I mean Tony’s death. Does he die? Where is Bobby Andes? Why didn’t he show up to clean things up? Do we die when we attain self-fulfillment? Can revenge ever be self-fulfillment? I have to stay with the film, as I have not read the Austin Wright’s original story, but Edward’s failure to appear at dinner in the end illustrates his revenge, as Stephanie points out and Royce alluded to. In so doing, if Tony died, then that would support this notion of death upon self-fulfillment, which means all the greed and the evil out there may well simply get worse. Yikes.
RG: No spoilers, but I think the soundtrack (i.e., the heartbeats) told the story about Tony. I don’t know if I would call it self-fulfillment; to connect the two narratives, it’s more like Tony’s purpose for Edward had been served. Once those pages had been read, there was no need for Edward to meet with Susan.
SV: The more I thought about what the manuscript represented, the more I started to believe that everything in it stood for something real that happened in Susan and Edward’s relationship. For example, I think Bobby Andes, the investigator (played by Michael Shannon), was a personification of the thought-process of Edward after the break-up with Susan. He’s trying to figure out whom to blame for his misery and when he finally finds the person, all he wants to do is exact revenge. After exacting revenge, we do not know if Bobby, the investigator, finally dies from cancer or not. He’s on his way out for sure, but we don’t know if he’s completely gone. Does it imply that the desire to seek revenge is not dead in Edward? The ending suggests yes. I think we do know that Tony (representative of Edward) dies in the manuscript. This signifies that in committing the revenge, Edward kills who he was or at least who he perceived himself to be. This act of revenge is perhaps the first step as he climbs the social ladder with the success of his new book. Royce, it’s true that there was no need for Edward to meet with Susan, but then why did he accept her dinner invitation? Perhaps, another moral of the story is that committing revenge does not provide a sense of self-fulfilment. Rather, it changes you for the worse.
RG: Well, I guess we’re fully in spoiler mode. My take was that standing her up was Edward’s passive aggressive act of revenge, in response to the abortion and the rest, which itself arguably an act of revenge by Susan against Edward. The manuscript and the dinner were both traps. It’s just sad that people resort to such acts against those they formerly claimed to have loved, but we’ve all done it in some form or another, haven’t we? I want her to hurt as much as she made me hurt, etc. But this is self-created: We create unrealizable ideals and then are disappointed, bitter, and venegeful when those fantasies crash back down to earth. Not only is that futile and changes us for the worse, as Stephanie put it, it must cause us to hate ourselves for loving so misguidedly or impurely (i.e., Edward must ask himself why he ever loved someone like her and could have been so wrong about who she truly is, or alternately torture himself with thoughts of what he did to cause her to “change”).
- What is the attitude of Nocturnal Animals toward women? Men?
SV: I can’t really comment on Ford’s attitude towards men and women, but, again, I do sense that he has strong opinions about the aristocratic class. As I have said, Susan is representative of an upper-class morality, but perhaps she is slightly more enlightened. She is owed this credit for coming from a family that is “racist, Republican, homophobic” and still being able to see the beauty in someone like Edward, who is described as being from more of a lower or middle working class family. She couldn’t admit it openly, for example when talking to her mother, but she and Edward connected through their artistic talents—and the same brilliance that she saw in herself she saw perhaps even more of in him.
The issue is in the ruthlessness. What Edward lacks is the ruthlessness towards other humans that is an unquestioned necessity for the attainment of the high socioeconomic standing which Susan’s family is used to. What he sees as cruelty they see as strength. What he sees as strength they see as weakness. In their opinion, he does not have the “strength” (backbone, resilience, etc.) to succeed in the cutthroat creative world. But if it is not real quality they value in the art scene, then what is it that determines success? To admit that he is more brilliant than her is to shine a light on the real difference between them, which is his aversion to normative aggression and cruelty.
BC: Those are very perceptive observations, Stephanie, about the contrast between Susan’s aggressive ruthlessness and Edward’s kindness. In light of the world around us right here, right now, this makes so much sense to me. But I think we can speak more directly about gender in the film, as I implied in my earlier comments. Men are interrogated in this film via models of masculinity. Tony and Edward, as “feeling” men, sensitive/creative types, are victimized by predacious women who want successful money-makers rather than emotional partners, and by the savage rapist, murder Lou. Detective Andes is a victim in the sense that his DA and higher-ups on the force betray him as he seeks to imprison Ray Marcus. Nature, fate, or the divine do the dirtier business of destroying Bobby through cancer. Savages, on the other hand, like Ray and Lou, are ultimately murdered. The men of feeling are redeemed by these murders but ironically dragged down into a similar position of violence and predation.
RG: Stephanie is speaking to a switch in the traditional male-female attributes and it’s obviously the sore spot in Susan and Edward’s foundering relationship, and that is an interesting way of looking at it. I could put the gender dynamics in even simpler terms than Brooke. Tony the writer, a.k.a. “vagina boy,” can’t protect his wife and women from “real men” with fast cars, sleeveless shirts, and prison records. He is taunted as weak, just as Edward felt Susan had done to him. The women are either frantic, annoying damsels in (understandable) distress or forlorn ice princesses whose men find sexual comfort elsewhere. In the end they are all various forms of corpses. Male or female, though, everyone in this film is pathetic, twisted, broken, or evil. But Brooke is right that the ambivalence about masculinity—the “interrogation” of it, as he puts it, which is well said—is a dominant motif in Nocturnal Animals. Think of how many of the scenes (Bobby-Tony, Bobby/Tony and Lou, Bobby/Tony and Ray, Susan and Edward, Susan and Hutton, Susan and her mother, etc.) literally or figuratively are interrogations.
SV: To be honest, I did not view the movie as having something to say about gender roles until you both brought it up. As it is no longer uncommon or remarkable to see the woman making more money than the man in a relationship, I think it is safe to generalize the choices made by Susan to almost anyone in her position. From this generalization, the emergent class-theme follows naturally. A necessary assumption, however, is that Susan does not make choices distinct from the aristocratic mindset. I would say it is a valid assumption as her mother’s dire predictions turned out to be apt.
Royce, I agree with what you say about many of the characters in the film being pathetic, twisted, broken, or evil. The film has a cynical and possibly misanthropic view of both men and women. What I’m not sure about is that Edward as the author saw himself as being fragile. Rather, it seems that in the relationship with Susan he saw himself as being up against forces towards which he was helpless. If we look at Susan and the strong influence of her family ideals, then it does seem he was powerless in the fight to keep her. In the same way, Tony’s family in the manuscript was rendered completely powerless when attacked in a stranded part of the desert in the middle of the night. I think that being called “weak” by the hoodlum-gang and the same comment coming from Susan is further allusion that actually Ray is representative of Susan.
BC: Royce, I don’t know if they’re all corpses. Wait, is this a zombie flick? Seriously, though, Edward and Detective Andes (weak and dying, as has been noted, and alienated from his daughter) are men struggling to be something other than the men society demands they be. Even Susan “The Sun’ll Come Out To-” Morrow yearns to be something other than what she is. In wanting and trying, I see them living. How well they do that is entirely up to us as viewers, readers, and writers.
RG: If that’s another way of saying that we all project some of our own issues and anxieties—whether those are about relationships, creativity, or social class—onto the film, I wouldn’t deny that is true. Hell, I’m a writer, scholar, artist, musician, and single middle-aged man who hasn’t conquered any world, and it’s not seeming likely that this will change anytime soon. I wouldn’t say Nocturnal Animals a blank screen, as we’ve been prompted to have certain reactions by the content, but what stands out most will be determined by each viewer and each viewing. I’m sure we’ve all watched enough films to be cool with that ambiguity.
- Is this a genre film? If so, which one(s)?
SV: A cynical dark-tone, murder-mystery, an investigator exacting revenge, stylish visuals, symbolic lighting, flashbacks, a flashing neon sign: it has all the hallmarks of a film noir.
BC: I’ll stick with what I said in my opening response and say it is a murder-mystery and also a contemporary Western. More than whodunit, however, is the question of how will justice be served. The setting is important here, with its clash between western Texas and urban Los Angeles. The western and film noir blend is central to this film and reminds me of several great films of a similar nature: No Country for Old Men, Mojave, and Seven Psychopaths. Another genre of which the film partakes is the romantic drama, or perhaps the romantic thriller. The romance component is indeed that with which the film ends, as we the audience and Susan (forever) await the arrival of Edward.
RG: The moody, dark, lush score sets the stage, evoking later-era film noir—not so much Hitchcock perhaps but those who paid homage to Hitchcock, particularly Brian DePalma. The story within the story gives it a postmodern feel. Like Brooke said, there’s even a slight detective suspense element, more how do we find ‘em and kill ‘em than whodunit. I’d also place it within the semi-great (semi, get it?) tradition of road horror movies, like Road Games, The Hitcher, and more recently, Tarantino’s homage to grindhouse Death Proof, combined with similar films that involve being stranded in the desert and its terrifying night. The nightmarish, life-changing encounter with scary hicks is of course in the ooo-wee pig tradition of Deliverance. But romantic thriller fits as well. Unsexy revenge non-porn might be a genre now. I hate to break it to you, Brooke, but since the credits have rolled that means Edward is never coming back except if that’s what you want to believe!
- Who gave the best acting performance in the film and why?
SV: If we are talking about a departure from who someone really is (or so we assume), I would say Aaron Taylor Johnson as Ray. To successfully portray the pure diabolical cruelty of someone like Ray requires an understanding of not only that person but also oneself and people in general. The way ATJ encompassed Ray has to be given credit as it was almost on par with Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs. The character development in the script perhaps limited what he was able to do with the role, but he definitely played a huge part in carrying the momentum of the movie (or the movie within the movie).
BC: As Stephanie notes, for playing someone far and removed from the actor and his body of work, Aaron Taylor-Johnson kills (cymbal crash). But it is a difficult question. Michael Shannon does a terrific job as Detective Andes, a lone man, whom as we said is dying of cancer, faced with one last opportunity to put away the bad guy. Jake Gyllenhaal, playing both Tony and Edward, has to offer up two different men in such a way that we get the fiction and the confusion of self in fiction. Both characters are men who suffer miserably. Amy Adams also offers a markedly different character in Susan, and she does well manifesting intense internal struggle in this patriarchal world that asks her to be a certain object of beauty and the image of her social class. Her struggle is her desire to reject that beauty and superficiality, even though she indeed wants the trappings that come with it, until she doesn’t. It would be unfair to leave Aaron Taylor-Johnson out, as his Ray Marcus is a monstrous success.
RG: I would never admit to being a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, yet his performances are often truly excellent and his body of work speaks for itself. Nightcrawler, End of Watch, Prisoners, Donnie Darko, Source Code, Everest—these are great films. And that’s not even to mention Zodiac and Brokeback Mountain, two of the most acclaimed movies of the 2000s. I know that Brooke agrees with me that Gyllenhaal has an incredible body of work. But I’d rank his Texas accent in this as one of his career lows, however. Amy Adams’ role as Susan is a quiet one…she is a mostly stoic victim of her present and past on the edge of a breakdown. I suppose it could be an epiphany that awaits, but likely instead just more haunting regrets. Michael Shannon has an intense presence as always, this time with a bolo tie, as the cancer-ridden detective. He is a bizarre, menacing cartoon character that feels like an archetype. Adams and Shannon’s portrayals were the ones I thought about the most about afterwards, with honorable mention to the aforementioned Aaron-Taylor Johnson and the not mentioned Karl Glusman (Lou) as Evil Hick 1 and Evil Hick 2.
- What would have been a better title for the film?
SV: I really like the given title. It is dark and poetic like the movie. Obviously, it is a departure from the original title of Wright’s novel, Tony and Susan. If I had to try and name the movie I would suggest The Old Revolution or Small Cruelties.
BC: Men (and Women). Straw Dogs, Too. For Susan.
RG: It could be called Regret, or alternately How Not to Keep Your Women. If given enough marquee space, I personally would go for something like The Non-Kindness of Strangers and Non-Strangers—or, just to be wry, Honk If You’re Horny.
BC: That last might be the winner, Royce (wryly).
SV: Some alternative wry titles might include A Dingo Ate My Baby or Woopum Gangnam Style.
RG: Things do go bump in the night.
BC: Dingoes aside, I agree with Stephanie that Nocturnal Animals is a terrific title: dark, slimy, and meta. The original book title is a smart play but a tough sell for a film, and for this one in particular.
RG: We could go on and on, but the dingoes are howling and the road is calling. Thanks to both of you for participating in this roundtable, and to Tom Ford and his collaborators for this outstanding film. Hopefully we’ve inspired some nocturnal and diurnal human animals to check it out.