Tom Ford’s sophomore filmmaking effort Nocturnal Animals was a nonlinear, disturbing picture of emotional decay and revenge. The movie leaves you pounding on your couch cushions feeling confused, unsatisfied, frustrated, and unsettled. Still, I have to say that it was a good film, especially for a man who so recently broke into the medium of cinema.
The 2016 film opens with a controversial montage of heavyset burlesque dancers that makes you question whether you’re actually watching the movie you thought you were. These dancers really don’t come into play at any other point in the movie, and the storyline develops into a fragmented, ekphrastic journey into the deteriorated relationship between art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) and her writer ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Nocturnal Animals paints a gut-wrenching picture of love, self-perception, revenge, and delusion that forces viewers to wrestle with their own image of themselves. Michael Shannon received a best supporting actor nomination at the Oscars for his role as badass loose-cannon cop Bobby Andes, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson delivered an incredibly chilling performance as the nihilistic and chaotic villain Ray Marcus.
The basic structure of the film follows Susan Morrow as she reads a novel that her ex-husband Edward dedicated to her. The film shifts between the real world of Susan’s unhappy life and the fictional story in Edward’s novel, making the story rather hard to follow sometimes. This article will dive into the parallels between these real and fictional worlds, and will attempt to explain the ending, which has become a point of particular confusion for a lot of viewers.
Nocturnal Animals Synopsis
As I mentioned before, Nocturnal Animals follows two parallel storylines, one real and one fictional. The real-world storyline follows Susan as she goes through her daily life as an art gallery owner who feels distant and unsatisfied with her life. She’s now married to a man she doesn’t love, her daughter is off somewhere and doesn’t seem to have the time of day for her, and she can’t find any fulfillment with her career.
At night, Susan lies awake and reads a draft of her ex-husband Edward’s novel, which was dedicated to her. As she reads through the story, she has flashbacks to the turbulent beginnings of her relationship with Edward. Her mother tells her not to marry Edward because he is weak and he won’t be able to provide for her as a writer. She marries him anyway, only to find out that her mother’s forewarnings would prove true as she grows resentful of Edward for being sensitive and idealistic rather than stable and responsible. Eventually, Susan decides that she has to divorce Edward and seek someone more “realistic” and “strong”.
In the present time, Susan finds herself yearning to reconnect with Edward, and the dedication gives her hope that there might still be hope to mend things between them. She emails Edward and praises his book and tries to set up a meeting with him. She finishes the novel and goes to meet Edward at the agreed-upon restaurant. In a frustrating and confusing final scene to the film, Susan nervously sips down several cocktails alone until the restaurant closes and it’s abundantly clear that Edward has stood her up.
The movie flashes from scenes of the real world to a portrayal of Edward’s novel, which follows a man named Tony Hastings, who is also played by Jake Gyllenhaal and is assumed to be a fictional representation of Edward Sheffield. The novel begins with Tony and his wife and daughter driving down a country highway near Marfa, Texas and being run off the road by a group of drunken degenerates named Ray, Turk, and Lou.
After Ray and Turk kidnap Tony’s wife and daughter, Lou takes Tony out to the middle of the desert and leaves him for dead. Tony finds his way back into town and files a police report for his missing wife and daughter, not long after which he returns to the scene of the crime with policeman Bobby Andes and discovers that his wife and daughter have been raped and killed.
The rest of the novel follows Tony and Bobby as they try to track down the perpetrators. Eventually, they’re able to arrest Lou and Ray; however, due to some legal loophole, Ray is allowed to walk free. Bobby, who’s dying of lung cancer, offers Tony his help in carrying out some rogue justice, and the two of them decide to track down Ray and Louy themselves.
The novel ends with Tony coming face to face with Ray in an abandoned shack and putting two bullets into his chest just before Ray hits him in the face with a farming tool. Tony wakes up in the shack covered in blood some hours later and finds Ray dead on the floor. He then stumbles out into the brush outside the shack, fires a bullet into the air, trips on the ground, and then accidentally shoots himself in the stomach. Tony bleeds out on the ground as the audience can hear his final heartbeats.
What Does It All Mean?
Upon first watching Nocturnal Animals, it may seem difficult to connect the events in the novel with the events that take place in real life. The characters in the novel are obviously meant to represent Edward, Susan, their daughter, and perhaps Susan’s new husband Hutton; however, the events of the novel are so violent and extreme that it’s hard to pin them to any of the events in their fairly pedestrian real lives.
In my opinion, and the opinions of many other viewers and critics, Edward’s novel was meant to be an allegory for the emotional toll of his divorce with Susan. While Edward and Susan were together, Edward was constantly encouraging Susan to pursue her dream of becoming an artist. But, when they split apart, Susan gave up on those dreams and became an art gallery owner instead. In this way, Ray Marcus could be meant to represent Susan’s new husband Hutton, who Edward felt was responsible for “killing” the creative spirit within his wife and daughter.
Edward was often criticized by Susan and her mother during their marriage for being weak, and it seems that he may blame himself somewhat for the dissolution of their marriage. In the novel, Tony’s wife and daughter get kidnapped because of his own inability to be strong and save them. This points to the fact that Edward may blame his own lack of strength in allowing Hutton to steal his family away from him.
In the end, though, Tony is able to prove his strength by pulling the trigger and killing Ray. At what cost, though? Tony could have moved on with his life and tried to heal his emotional wounds in a more responsible way, but instead, he goes on a wild hunt for revenge that leaves him dead in a ditch. In this way, the movie shows that the quest for revenge always ends with the avenger getting hurt.
In the very last scene of the movie, it becomes clear that Edward’s novel was a quest for revenge in real life as well as in the fictional story. He’s written the entire novel to prove his worth to an ex-wife who doubted his abilities and left him. He agrees to meet her for dinner only to stand her up in an effort to prove that he no longer needs her approval. But, the fact of the matter is that he wrote an entire novel and dedicated it to her just to get back at her, which proves that he’s probably even further under her thumb than he ever was.
The final scene of Edward’s novel and the fact that he stood Susan up at the restaurant is a sad commentary on the nature of revenge. While both Edward and Tony carried out their revenge the way they intended to, it was at the cost of great personal emotional damage and a kind of death. Would things have been better if Tony never agreed to seek vigilante justice by chasing down Ray? Would Edward be in a better place if he tried to move on from Susan rather than writing an entire novel to get back at her? Probably.