The Specter of Past Relationships in Nocturnal Animals



(Read With Caution could’ve been an alternate title to the film, by the way…)

Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has been ridiculously advertised as a schizophrenic film within a film that anyone watching any of the tonally different trailers would be hard pressed to tell you what the devil the thing is about. But one almost wonders if the strange advertising is all part of the Ford game? Look at Jake Gyllenhaal’s tipsy smirk plastered across your IMDB homepage…oh…and look…he’s taking a blue-eyed gander at the even bluer-eyed Amy Adams, all red tresses and smiles…America’s sweethearts. It’s all so fake. And all so wrong. Like much of the film. But also so symbolic. And borderline brilliant when it’s not absurd.

Ford’s opening credits of obese women doing some post-modern Burlesque (ah, what an art show!) will put some off with its Lynchian inspired weirdness (and there’s more sick touches interspersed throughout the film)…but it serves a purpose if you wisely invest in the film until the very end. It’s just one of many tricks the director pulls off here…like inserting a go-for-broke performance from…you guessed it…the ubiquitous – and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times –  always amazing, Michael Shannon, into the film within the film on what seems like a total lark.

Nocturnal Animals is really much more straightforward than any encapsulated description of its plot would lead you to believe. Or is it? Simply put, it’s a psychological thriller about reading. In a grander sense, it’s about how the viewer (or reader) brings their own emotional baggage to viewing art. In a bizarrely humanist bent, it’s also an infinitely sad testament to the spectre past relationships and traumatic break-ups cast upon one’s ensuing life.

In the film (based on a novel by Austin Wright), a teetering-on-depression art gallerista named Susan (Adams, so delightfully complex and subverting all her norms in what is her second great performance this year after Arrival) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal, who somehow both under-acts and overacts, Edward’s tottering emotions always subject to Susan’s sometimes melodramatic interpretations of his writing) that he has mysteriously dedicated to her. With her philandering current husband (human Ken doll Armie Hammer) away on business and the increasingly vacuous modern art she’s been peddling boring her to tears, she succumbs to the siren calls of her ex and loses herself in the book, staying up all night, devouring every seedy detail of the revenge tale about a man (also played by Gyllenhaal) whose wife (cleverly played by Adams look-alike Isla Fisher) and daughter are brutally murdered by a band of Texas weirdos on one of those pulpy vacations gone-to-hell.

The screenplay (also by Ford) and clever editing by Joan Sobel of Ford’s crisp, eye-catching images of landscapes both external and internal (as in belonging to the mind of our protagonist) sometimes cleanly, and sometimes (as part of the show!) abruptly move us back and forth amongst the action of the novel, Susan’s enraptured reading of it, and Susan and Edward’s first marriage. Slowly but surely as the novel reaches its climax, so do we, viewers of the film, find out just how devastating Susan’s earlier actions were in her fragile marriage to Edward. And how broken she left them both (or at least how broken she thinks she left him and now feels herself).

Ford viciously closes the film (with Abel Korzeniowski’s haunting Vertigo-esque score rising like a melancholic melodic miasma in the background) with current day Susan offering to meet up with current day Edward to discuss the book. With her second marriage crumbling, and new light shed on the harm she did in the past, could she now reconnect with Edward after nearly twenty years of not seeing him? Decked out in her finest eye-catching dress, and seated at a stylish fancy restaurant, the camera lingers on Amy Adams as she has a drink…and another…and another…her joyful expectant facial expressions slowly giving away to nervous twitches and playing with her hair…as she waits and waits. Alone. Eyes moist and bloated…her spirit dead, just like those obese women she paraded in the sick performance art show at the film’s onset.

Ah, now I get it, Mr. Ford, you sly dog!

Written by David H. Schleicher


  1. Finally caught up on this one. It really spooked me out in some places, in a nice way of course. I loved the ending. I wish there was more to it but then, it’s nice the way it is.

    More and more directors doing the David Lynchian number, each in their unique way: first La La Land and then Nocturnal Animals. And yet, both world’s apart. I think David Lynch will get an unparalleled cult status none of his contemporaries will.

    As always, you nailed it with this one. Read With Caution. LOL.

    And you sort of, kind of, explained the connect with the obese women, which I didn’t get until I read your review. Thanks David.

    • Yes – I saw this, Cafe Society, and La La Land back to back to back – and all three were vastly different on the surface yet thematically so similar in terms of love and loss and memory and dreams (and the Hollywood settings). All three with their own twists/vibe. This one harkens to Lynch and Hitchcock very strongly, and was by far the darkest (and strangest) of the three. Loved the “internal show” of reading, too.

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