Nocturnal Animals tells the story of Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a sombre and seemingly tormented art-gallery owner who, as she delves into the riveting novel of her ex-husband, is forced to confront unpleasant realities about her past through the heart-wrenching experiences of the book’s protagonist, Tony Hastings.
As the film begins, I am thrown into a state of bewilderment, as barely and patriotically dressed women dance in slow-motion on screen. Later revealed as part of protagonist Susan Morrow’s performative art show, these women immediately introduce a bold and unpredictable nature to the film.
It is strikingly clear to me from the first few scenes that Susan’s life is pitifully empty and joyless, filled with a bleakness that is reinforced by the stark nature of her house (hardly deserving of the description ‘home’), which features minimalist architecture and impressively modern yet cold pieces of art. While watching, I am most powerfully impacted by some vast windows spanning an entire wall of the house, leaving Susan unnervingly vulnerable to the eyes of the outside world. For the most part, all that can be seen through these large, disconcerting windows is darkness and shadow, so that when Susan stares out, it is her own reflection that confronts her. This immediately strikes me as poignantly representative of her truest fear: herself.
The cumulation of these early hints at Susan’s internal suffering and general unhappiness in life immediately grips me, leaving me desperate to understand her past and the reason behind her misery. Therefore, as the film introduces the existence of an ex-husband of Susan’s, I am immediately convinced it is her previous failed marriage which unlocks the key to this mystery; it is clear that the marriage did not end on a happy note, as Susan reveals they have not spoken in years. Up until this point I have been waiting with bated breath for the film to ‘really get started’, as the slow-pace of the first few minutes offers little in the way of a coherent plotline, so I am not disappointed when Susan begins to read the novel sent to her by it’s author, her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal).
My thoughts as the film continues consist predominantly of confusion: who is this ex-husband? What happened in their marriage? How is the plotline of his novel going to unravel all the tangled threads of perplexity forming in my mind? These questions only intensify after the harrowing initial scenes of Edward’s book are portrayed in scenes played intermittently with those about Susan’s own life, in which the protagonist Tony Hastings and his family are harassed and driven off the road by violent and unhinged thugs, who proceed to kidnap Tony’s wife and daughter. The scene is so chilling, so powerful, and so truly terrifying that I can’t help but sit and watch as though I am Tony himself.
I immediately speculate that as the writer of such a heart-wrenching and disturbing story, Edward must have been inspired by a similarly distressing loss. This theory only grows when Tony finds his wife and daughter raped and murdered and posed together on a red sofa in the wilderness, at which point the film switches back to Susan Morrow, who gasps at the shocking narrative. As she calls her young daughter (Bobbi Salvör Menuez) on the phone, who is shown to be laying in the exact position as Tony’s murdered daughter in the novel, I start to believe that a connection runs poignantly deep between Susan’s life and the fictional life of Tony Hastings.
As the film progresses I continue to eagerly consider how these two narratives are connected. Pieces begin to fall into place as, in addition to Susan’s present storyline and the fictional life of Tony Hasting’s, the film also shows flashbacks to a young Susan Morrow as she meets, falls in love with, and breaks up with her first husband Edward Sheffield. Up until this point my sympathy has largely been with Susan (although it is hard to pinpoint exactly why), yet as I gain insight into the events of her past, my sympathy certainly falters. Despite appearing at first to be a warm, open-minded and humble woman, who loves and marries Edward despite her mother’s (Laura Linney) disapproval, I soon begin to see hints of the rigid and cold Susan who exists in the present.
The moment of true clarity comes with learning that after leaving her ‘failing’ writer husband Edward, in favour of the handsome and successful Walker Morrow (Armie Hammer) (who goes on to become her current (affair-having) husband), Susan falls pregnant with and quickly aborts Edward’s child. A particularly heart-breaking scene shows Susan and Walker embracing in a car as Edward looks devastatingly in, presumably having learned what she has done. It strikes me here that the intense regret on Susans face as she gazes out at Edward is hauntingly etched into her face all those years later as she reads his novel.
It becomes clear to me at this point that the harrowing first scene of Edward’s novel, in which Tony’s wife and daughter are brutally stolen from him, is reminiscent of the heartbreak and pain Edward felt at learning his child was gone forever and his wife was in the arms of another man.
The final few scenes of the film, in which present-day Susan eagerly arranges a meeting with Edward, give me hope of an emotional reunion and a satisfying conclusion to this sad story. However, the anguish woven through Edward’s novel, which is a manifestation of his own pain, simultaneously leaves me wondering how a peaceful reconciliation can ever be reached. As Susan sits waiting for Edward, the final few scenes from his novel play out; these two moments interwoven create an intense ending to a consistently gripping film. As Susan repeatedly checks her watch I become less and less certain of Edward’s appearance, while Tony Hasting’s life comes to an emotional end as he finally kills Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the man who raped and murdered his family, before bleeding slowly out and dying moments later himself.
To me, this is a powerful parallel; it is clear that Tony’s final revenge on Ray is synonymous with Edward’s revenge on Susan, carried out in the present through proving his incredible success as a writer before shunning her completely and leaving her to agonizing regrets and an empty life with a cheating husband. Yet the death of Tony after his revenge, and the slow and painful manner in which it happens, demonstrates to me in the final few moments of the film that Edward’s vengeance was not done coldly and maliciously, but achingly, at his own personal cost and only in order to finally be free.