WARNING: THIS DISCUSSION OF NOCTURNAL ANIMALS CONTAINS SPOILERS
TOM Ford’s adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan is a compelling and transfixing cinematic experience. Masterfully edited by Joan Sobel, Nocturnal Animals slickly tells three interwoven stories: present, past and fictional.
The centre point is Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), an affluent gallery owner disenchanted with her work. To add to her woes, trouble is brewing in her marriage to struggling businessman Hutton (Armie Hammer).
Ford reflects this in an early breakfast scene. Just as revealingly as the one-side nature of their interaction, the two stand on either end of Ford’s frame – a distance we later learn might be unbridgeable.
Already in a vulnerable state, Susan receives the manuscript of a novel written by distant ex-husband (they haven’t spoken in 19 years) Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Dedicated to Susan and titled Nocturnal Animals – after a name he used to call her – the novel is a chilling story of violence and anguish.
As Susan reads, Sheffield’s book is played out on-screen to haunting effect. We watch as Tony Hasting (Gyllenhaal once again) and family – wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) – are attacked while driving down a remote road in the middle of the night.
With no cell service available, the Hastings are left at the mercy of this predatory gang – led by a hyena-like Ray (a chilling Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The sequence is incredibly affecting (Susan’s reaction confirms this) and adds an unsettling sense of inevitability to the horrific outcome.
After being separated from Laura and India, Tony discovers the next morning that they have been raped and murdered. Distraught, he turns to dogged Officer Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) for justice – and eventually vigilante revenge.
Susan is moved by the book’s contents and contacts Sheffield to meet up. At this point, we start seeing flashbacks of their relationship which reveal that their past has provided the inspiration for Sheffield’s Nocturnal Animals.
With this, the parallels between Sheffield’s book and his past with Susan become apparent. Sheffield and Tony are both victims of the ruthless and cold-hearted action of nocturnal animals.
For Sheffield, he has been left broken-hearted by – in the words of Susan’s mother – a more ‘strong-willed’ individual. Just as Sheffield was ‘weak’, his fictional self, Tony, is helpless in saving his wife and daughter from the tortures they suffer.
Tellingly, the parallels between Tony and Sheffield are made clearer by the fact they are both played by Gyllenhaal. Yet, Adams only plays Susan, not a character in Sheffield’s book. That is because Susan represents more than one figure in Sheffield’s fiction.
Part of Susan – Sheffield’s ‘first crush’ and woman he thought he’d married – is shown in Laura (Fisher’s redheaded beauty and resemblance to Adams comes in handy). Tony loses her cruelly along with daughter India – who could represent the child we learn Susan aborted after sparking her affair with Hutton.
The other, darker part of Susan lies in Ray. They both operate in the dark and fulfil their primal pleasures, like animals, at the expense of others.
Editing and cuts
THESE parallels are brilliantly reinforced by the film’s editing. To knit together three strands of story is easier done in a novel than a film, but Sobel manages it in a way that maintains coherence – and enthrallingly enhances the many allusions at play.
Shudders and gunshots carry over cuts, bleeding from fiction into reality. In one moment, Ford and Sobel cut from Tony – sitting in a motel bath the morning after the horrendous incident – to Susan in a luxurious bath pondering Sheffield’s work. It is a striking contrast between the agony Sheffield has felt and the comfort of Susan’s existence.
Pain and excess
MANY frames of the film are spent observing the deep psychological and visceral impact that reading Sheffield’s work is having on Susan. Like most directors, Ford cannot help but utilise one of cinema’s most effective weapons: eyes, Amy Adams’ eyes. They radiate a sadness and pain that makes every reaction shot absorbing.
Of course, these reactions happen while Susan slinks around her lavish mansion, which itself tells a revealing story of upper-class materialism and the hollowness that often follows. The extravagance of Susan’s home takes us back to the film’s first images.
As part of Susan’s gallery opening, we see obese naked women dancing with US flags and pom-poms while glitter rains down. It is prolonged image of junk culture, pleasure fulfilment and American excess – a vision that a panting Susan is clearly disturbed by. Perhaps this is because she is engrained in this materialistic culture, albeit at the very top.
ANOTHER link between Susan and this hedonistic culture is that the naked women wear a similar red lipstick to her. Susan later wipes off this make-up on her way to meet Tony, a gesture which shows she wants to leave this decadent life behind.
Undoubtedly, red is an important colour in the film. The dead bodies of Laura and India are found on a bright red sofa – a stark reminder of the one Sheffield and Susan sit on when they meet in New York.
Red is also one of the striking and definitive colours that background Susan throughout the film. The reds, blacks and whites which engulf her surroundings at points of the film bring a sense of artificiality to her world. That falseness is contrasted with the gritty Texas wilderness of Sheffield’s fiction which in many ways is more real than Susan’s existence.
SHEFFIELD’S writing is raw with human emotion and inner, truthful pain. It is powerful enough to challenge Susan’s perception of herself and the things around her. Suddenly, she notice the surrounding artwork – the bull with the arrows, the revenge poster and the execution painting.
The fantasy of Susan’s reality is fading as Sheffield’s book forces her to look at the pain she caused. To mirror this, the suave James Bond-ish music that accompanied Susan early in the film is gradually replaced by more contemplative and sorrowful strings.
NOCTURNAL Animals gives us an ending that combines retribution and loss: the bitter-sweet killing of Ray by Tony and his accidental suicide, followed by Susan sitting in an expensive bar waiting for Sheffield to show up (he never does).
Tony and Sheffield have got their revenge, but at what cost? While it is death for Tony, it could just be a part of Sheffield that has died with writing his book. Even still, their blows have a fatal impact on Ray – and in a different way – Susan.
The image of Susan sitting alone in the expensive restaurant implies she is doomed to stay alone in this vapid, self-indulgent world. It reminds me of what Carlos (Michael Sheen) had told her earlier in the film: ‘Our world is a lot less painful than the real world.’ Maybe that it true, but as Susan has realised, their world is more empty.
Whether or not you see something different in Nocturnal Animals, I hope we can agree on one key fact. Namely that Nocturnal Animals is an arresting film with powerful performances from Adams, Gyllenhaal and Shannon.
I got even more out of it second time around – possibly one of the most underappreciated films of 2016. Give it a go – first-time or second-time around. Read the book too – if you can spare the time.
Nocturnal Animals is available on DVD and Sky Cinema
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Amy Adams – Susan Morrow
Jake Gyllenhaal – Tony Hastings/Edward Sheffield
Michael Shannon – Bobby Andes
Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Ray Marcus
Isla Fisher – Laura Hastings
Ellie Bamber – India Hastings
Armie Hammer – Huton Morrow
Michael Sheen – Carlos