Runtime: 1h 57m
It is unsurprising that a film directed by fashion icon Tom Ford is visually beautiful, but it is the substance and narrative complexities of Nocturnal Animals that result in its distinctive appeal. It is a dark and stimulating film with a puzzling narrative that challenges the audience’s perceptive bearings from its opening credits sequence. The scene features a large woman gleefully dancing in the nude. She is not so quickly revealed to be a crucial part of an art exhibit, establishing the film’s thematic representation of artistic expression and its impact on one’s serenity.
The structure of Nocturnal Animals is at the core of the film’s distinctive presentation, following three perspective narratives. The central narrative of the film follows Susan Morrow, wonderfully played by Amy Adams, a wealthy art gallery owner who abruptly receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). It is quickly established that Susan and Edward have not spoken in several years, resulting in her suspicions towards the novel’s jarring delivery and eventually it’s content. The secondary narrative follows the plot of Edward’s novel, a story about a man, his wife and his daughter being terrorised by three locals on a highway late one night in West Texas. The final narrative follows flashbacks to Susan and Edwards’s relationship and what led to its ultimate demise.
What is fascinating about the plot construction of Nocturnal Animals is the ways in which the three narratives overlap and influence each other, presenting unique insight into characters’ motives and their thematic relevance. In the flashback narrative, it is revealed that Susan indulged in an extramarital affair with Hutton (Armie Hammer), who would become her second husband and the man she divorces Edward for. While Edward initially attempts to repair their relationship, he ultimately cut ties with Susan completely upon learning that she was pregnant with his child but secretly had an abortion to ensure the divorce proceeded. It then becomes clear to the audience and Susan in the modern day narrative that the plot of Edward’s manuscript is an allegory for the loss he endured during this fall out. The central character of his novels, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal to bolster the personal affiliation he has to the character, wife and daughter are murdered by the highway locals. This corresponds with what Edward believes to be the loss he suffered as a result of Susan’s infidelity and abortion. The novel’s existence and delivery to Susan are equally influenced by their early relationship, evidenced by her declaration of his inability to write a successful novel prior to their separation. This re-establishes the document as a form of revenge and furthers the film’s notion of a person’s artistic capability when indulging in one’s emotion.
The film’s final scene is as mysterious as its first, as it concludes with Susan waiting at a restaurant for her ex-husband who never shows for reasons that are not explicitly explained. Like the naked women from the opening credits, happiness is drawn out of artistic expression and a lack of emotional expression and creative outlet has resulted in Susan’s ongoing misery and despondency towards those around her. Unlike Susan, the dancing woman is exposed and vulnerable, therefore expressing joy through her lack of restraint. She represents everything Susan is not and supports Edward’s suggested notion that Susan’s impassive nature has led her to a life of regret and empty wealth. The film’s negligence towards Edward’s arrival inflicts this unease onto the audience and the character’s absence inspires a new form of discomfort for Susan, emotional discomfort. Through Edward’s art, Susan has ultimately permitted herself to be vulnerable and his lack of appearance is his eerie yet effective method of showing her that. This cements the film’s stance on artistic expression and its importance in generating emotion but raises an entirely separate question of the cost at which this comes.