“A fool always finds a greater fool to admire him” Nicolas Boileu.
I must begin this article by profusely apologising to everyone, men, women and children alike. I pride myself on my ability to critic and analyse a film with a clear mind, but on this occasion, I have been a blind fool. Months ago, when I first watched this film I was blown away by the passion, the style, the Mise en Scene of the piece. I sang its praises to anyone who would listen about how this film was one of my favourites of last year. Then something quite fantastic happened, Victoria Coren Mitchell wrote an article for The Guardian about Nocturnal Animals, calling it a “repulsive film”, and “gynophobic death-porn”. (I will link the article below). At the time, I could see that not only did she possess a strong and persuasive argument, but I also know that she possesses a far wiser mind than my own and therefore was seeing something I had quite clearly missed; therefore, my mind was plagued with an inner conflict. Frustratingly I didn’t have a moment to go and see the film again, so I’ve had to wait several months to be able to watch Tom Ford’s film once more.
I cannot recollect a time when I have had two such drastically different experiences to a single film in only two viewings. Now Admittedly when I first saw this film it was exceptionally late and so I can only assume that my brain was functioning at half speed.
You will no doubt have heard of the Tom Ford directed film starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Isla Fisher and Armie Hammer, if only in passing. It gained attention and praise both critically and throughout the award season with Shannon being nominated for a best supporting role, and Aaron Taylor Johnson won his Golden Globe nominated for the same category. The film has won 15 awards out of the 126 for which it was nominated, making this entire spectacle that much more appalling if you actually understand the message of the film, beyond its misleading stylised aesthetic.
Nocturnal Animals is overtly masculine, overtly American (the manuscript is entirely set in Texas). It’s overtly sexist both in its perception of women and men, and it is fundamentally disgusting in its message to the audience. Far too few uses of the word overtly, but frankly I could be here all day throwing that word at this film.
Now I must warn you that there are spoilers throughout this article now, but quite frankly I’m saving you valuable time discussing a film that should become culturally significant, if for all the wrong reasons.
Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, a successful business woman who runs her own art gallery. One day she receives a copy of a manuscript written by her ex-husband, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. The pair have not seen each other in over 20 years. Susan now has her own family, comprised of a decaying marriage to a neglectful husband who is having an affair, and a daughter who only has one scene which is used by Ford for graphic symbolism.
The opening of the film witnesses’ Susan’s new exhibit, where several heavily overweight women are placed in two areas of the room. The first are placed on platforms to be watched as they dance, in slow-motion, wearing only fashionable and stylish gold hats and boots with crudely applied make-up. Whilst the second are placed like cuts of meat on white slabs face down, so that attendees can gaze upon them and witness how hideous they are. The women all have various blemishes, scars and the like across their bodies. They are meant to be grotesque. The implication presumably being they are ‘real’ whilst those who gaze upon them are ‘fake’, overtly designed so that Ford can really force that particular metaphor into your brain. I would not have such a problem with this as an opening scene, if it were not for the fact that it’s so outrageously sexist. Ford is portraying the art world to be superficial as it gazes down upon what women should look like. If this is indeed the case, then where are the men? Why are we meant to only judge women? As if that didn’t already occur enough within life. The opening scene feeds into an underlying message that this film needlessly envisions, namely to judge and blame women for decisions they make regarding their own bodies.
There is no denying that those scenes not depicted in the manuscript story are incredibly stylish, the clothes, the house, and the cast, who are all phenomenally beautiful men and women, from Amy Adams to Armie Hammer. The juxtaposition then, can be found in the manuscript, where barren wastelands, cheap motels, and cancer ridden Sheriff’s depict a world created and fuelled by one man’s absolute hate and pain, and which depicts the harrowing ugliness of life and death. Both worlds are stylistically perfect for their environment; however, this is hardly surprising given that it’s orchestrated by a world famous fashion designer, so no points awarded there as I highly doubt it would be good for business if the style of the film was not on point.
The relationship between Susan and Edward is the core of the story, and though we never see actually see Edward in the present narrative, we do see Jake Gyllenhaal play both Edward, through flashbacks, and Tony, the protagonist of the manuscript. This manuscript can only be described as one of the most twisted, hateful and despicable forms of revenge imaginable. Allow me to provide context. Twenty years prior to events of this film, Susan had an abortion without Edward’s knowledge. Edward, who was a struggling writer at the time, used the anger he felt in that one moment as the inspiration to write this manuscript. The information that the abortion occurred serves as the supposed plot twist towards the end of the film, though Ford is hardly subtle with his hints throughout the film, forcibly steering you in that direction.
In this manuscript Tony, his wife Laura (played by Isla Fisher), and their daughter India are travelling along a road in Texas. The overtly obvious metaphor here being Laura and India represent Susan and her daughter, whom she had with her current husband played by Armie Hammer. On this journey, the three are run off the road by a group of outlaw misfits lead by Ray, who is played by Aaron Taylor Johnson. Yes, the car chase is unnerving, gripping, filled with suspense and impressively shot; however, the scene that directly follows is utterly disturbing, to the extent that you feel your skin crawl and your anger ascend like a burning sensation throughout your entire body. The two women are forced into the men’s car and driven away whilst Tony is left standing in the road watching them leave, not only does he have no control over the situation but failed to act initially to stop the men. Spot the overtly simplistic metaphor.
The next day after Tony has contacted the police, they find the mother and daughter naked, placed on a red sofa face to face, with the mother’s bottom facing the camera in the middle of what appears to be the remnants of a demolished house. It is later revealed that the two women were treated absolutely horrendously before they were both raped and murdered. Not only is this so totally unnecessarily and overtly violent, it is another yet another declaration of the film’s message that women do not have the right to control their own bodies for they shall be punished by the men if they do make decisions without the man’s consent. It this message that is so profoundly stated in this film, and so ultimately disturbing. Yet, as previously mentioned, the film has been praised with both positive reviews and awards. Furthermore, the daughter who is beaten and raped in this manuscript is not Ned’s daughter but the daughter of Susan and her present husband, something that I found particularly harrowing.
The film shifts in tone and rhythm into a ‘good ol’boy’ revenge thriller within the manuscript, transitioning between shots reminiscent of a revenge western as displayed in the manuscript, and shots of Susan reacting to the chapters as they occur in her mind. When the shot of the two women on the sofa happens, the scene transitions to Susan calling her daughter, who happens to be naked with her boyfriend in the same position. Once again displaying Ford’s ineptitude for subtly in regards to symbolism.
Masculinity is another not so subtle theme that the film attempts to construct, as portrayed through conversation between Susan and Edward. Towards the end of the film Edward perceives himself as a weak man when the relationship between them is clearly not working, at which point he says, ‘When you love something, you care for it, you don’t just throw it away” which I believe is supposed to refer to that relationship, but is in fact not to subtly directed at the future abortion. No wonder he is a struggling writer with that level of ignorant material.
In one scene, Susan is at work, clearly disturbed by her previous night-time reading of the manuscript, when her assistant enters the room to talk. During this scene, Susan says the line “I panicked, I did something horrible to him, something unforgivable”. Not only is this deeply rage inspiring regarding an event 20 years prior, but also surmises the overtly American and more specifically Texan nature of this film as depicted in film & TV shows. To engage in these debates that have been hotly debated in American for decades, practically since the dawn of its birth, in such an overtly simplistic and ignorant manner is deeply offense to all genders.
Isolation is another poignant theme that the film uses to punish Susan for the right to choose what happens to her own body. Though Susan is a highly successful woman in her career, she is quite alone in her opinions regarding the perception of the world around her and of the art world. Once her husband leaves on his ‘business trip’ she is totally isolation in a gigantic house to read through the manuscript, spending the rest of the film alone baring the odd phone call. During her reading of this manuscript she rings her husband, at which point she discovers he is having an affair and that her marriage is presumably over. She also phones her daughter only to be told essentially to go away. Thereby severing the connections she has to her loved ones in her time of need.
In the final scene, she has arranged to meet Edward to discuss his book which she describes as being “beautifully written” in her email to him, again my skin crawled at seeing the words. Also, more to the point, there is a total absence of anger in her response to reading his manuscript, simply rejection, sorrow and what appears to be her need to redeem herself in his eyes.
We leave Susan in the restaurant where she has been sat for several hours waiting for Ned to materialise, which of course he never does. The purpose of this scene is quite clear, she must feel totally isolated but still feel a desire to see him once more, for she never leaves the restaurant but sits there as it people slowly vacate the scene.
And that is the feeling Tom Ford and the writers of the original book want to leave you with, a revenge thriller that originates from a woman’s decision to choose what to do with her body without consulting the man. The male revenge for this act is so overtly violent, but somehow acceptable because the bodies are so beautifully and inaccurately displayed by a fashion designer. So, although the cast is exceptionable, each performance is genuinely marvellous, my question is, why did this need to be made? If all that I have highlighted is the purpose of the film then bravo you have made a somewhat decent adaptation; however, your message is abhorrent and as Victoria excellently surmises in her article, “If you make everything stylish, don’t make a film about rape and Murder”.
OVERALL * Though you may have a marvellous cast, beautiful locations and costume with characters that possess depth, the underlying message of the film is so utterly abhorrent that it renders everything else redundant.
RECOMMENDATION – Having now watched the film twice and gained, what I feel is a far greater understanding of it, I never wish to see this film ever again. The opening 30 minutes alone is so disturbing and overtly so it becomes the lingering feeling once the film has ended. Those studying film are perhaps the only people I would recommend this to.