I watched Nocturnal Animals for the second time (thanks HBO) last night. And I’m sure I’ll watch it again. I know, I know—many critics wrote it off as style over substance, the fashion designer director has the visuals down but no depth of content.
The film begins with an odd montage considering the director, Tom Ford, is known as the designer responsible for reinventing the formerly farty old Gucci leather company into a sleek fashion empire. Naked, obese women with sparklers and tiaras shake their stuff (literally) in slow motion over the opening credits. It’s a disconcerting (and fascinating) series of images even on my small TV screen. Eventually, the camera pulls back and we are oriented into a white box of a hip, L.A. art gallery of one’s dreams. The obese women are part of the exhibit (either as realistic statues or actual women in some kind of bizarre installation). Juxtaposed to their inert and moving mounds of imperfect humanity, sits impeccably put together Susan (Amy Adams), wearing what looks like Tom Ford, with her statement necklace and signature red hair brushed to one side. She’s gorgeous, successful…and sad.
Later, after she drives up to her amazing (talk about real estate porn) moderne L.A. home (the metallic gates open and close slowly) we find out why she’s so depressed. Her wealth is a facade and her Ken doll husband is cheating. At an L.A. art party, her friends advise her to enjoy the absurdity of their world. She can’t, because somewhere in her past, she had a chance to live an authentic life and blew it.
Enter a mysterious package at her door: it’s a manuscript of a novel, Nocturnal Animals, her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) wrote. A paper cut as she opens it provides some foreshadowing. This will prove to be a devastating read.
Through a series of flashbacks into Susan and Edward’s former life, Susan’s present emptiness, and the novel within the story about an average man who is destroyed when he and his family meet a group of wild men in a Texas wilderness. The unfolds as Susan envisions it with Gyllenhaal playing the protagonist, and a woman and girl who look a lot like her and her daughter playing the wife and kid. What happens on the lost highway is devastating. His story continues as he overcomes his weakness and finds redemption in revenge and self-sacrifice. That it’s a fictional story within the story doesn’t make what happens any less powerful. In fact it deepens what is revealed as an emotional wound that festers when one lover doesn’t have the faith to carry true love (rare according to the story’s theme) forward in what is a difficult life versus taking the easy way out and suffering from the internal rot of a wasted life.
By writing about what he knows: the interior life of a man ripped of his love and his child by a stronger male “animal”, his inability to act in the moment to fight for what is his, then his long road of suffering ahead, the artist creates from his own truth, and overcomes his impotence. That it’s taken Edward twenty years to write a great novel speaks quietly of the artist’s path versus Susan’s easy out into nothingness.
Pulling off parallel universes is tough in literature and film, but Ford straddles it all quite seamlessly, making emotional bridges through these very different worlds. Each world has its own rules and aesthetics, and each occupies its own dream space. There’s Susan’s present life, which is as cold as the slow-moving metal gates of her home/prison, there’s Edward and Susan’s past which has the feel of a Christmas in New York postcard that will never survive in the face of reality, and the novel’s story line which exists in a 1970’s Two Lane Blacktop world of muscle cars, craggy detectives, dangerous highway thugs, and high stakes. Pain is the only thing that’s real.
The ending is appropriately ambiguous. Does Edward’s revenge include payback for Susan’s “unforgivable” crime against love, or is he trying to teach her the same lesson she had extended to him?
Great performances and direction make this film a powerful melodrama. The Bernard Hermann-esque score completes the homage to Douglas Sirk.