[Note: This post contains major spoilers. Updated 12/12/16.]
Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you
Tell me I'm exceptional, I promise to exploit you
Give me all your money, and I'll make some origami, honey
I think you're a joke, but I don't find you very funny
—Courtney Barnett, "Pedestrian at Best"
Writer-director Tom Ford’s bracing sophomore feature Nocturnal Animals is an absorbing, often difficult work. This is not to say that it is challenging to parse the film’s plot. In truth, not much actually happens in the primary narrative, which unfolds indolently over a few days within the chic confines of Los Angeles’ contemporary art scene. The bulk of Animals’ “action,” as it were, takes place within the mind of its haunted protagonist, gallery director Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). With the exception of a couple of clumsily conveyed plot points and a devastating wallop of a question mark at the end, the film is simple enough to follow. What fascinates and repulses about Ford’s tale is its emotional landscape, which is revealed as a rancid mire of dissolution, treachery, and revenge. Animals is not an easy film to love, but it’s devilishly easy to be swept along by its venomous currents. At its conclusion, the viewer, dazed and gasping for breath, is compelled to wrestle with the film’s pessimistic and unforgiving outlook. It is the sort of feature that veritably demands a reaction, but not necessarily a straightforward one.
The keystone of Nocturnal Animals’ cinematic potency is its tripartite structure. Susan’s present-day life (here dubbed Story A, for convenience) is a rarefied affair, characterized by champagne-splashed exhibit openings, witty tastemaker friends, and all the trappings of fashionable luxury, down to her Sferra linens and Cartier clock. Like most of cinema’s Poor Little Rich Girls, however, she is deeply unhappy. Appearances notwithstanding, she and her alpha-male executive husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) are nearly broke. Their marriage is in its cold, barely twitching stages, and their exchanges are limited to tense pleasantries and obvious dishonesties. Just as Hutton is jetting back to New York for a long weekend of negotiations—and a bit of infidelity—Susan receives a package from her first husband, Edward Sheffield, a writer to whom she was married briefly in graduate school. In this parcel is a galley proof of Edward’s latest novel, titled Nocturnal Animals. Enclosed is a brief note, in which Edward entreats her to read the book and offer her thoughts, perhaps over dinner while he is in L.A. The novel is, to Susan’s plain surprise, dedicated to her.
After sending her domestic staff away for the weekend, Susan settles in to read the book, a redneck gothic revenge thriller set in the deserts of West Texas. This establishes a variation on the “film-within-a-film” (Story B) for Ford’s feature: The viewer experiences Susan’s imaginative conception of the bloody, unsettling novel that Edward has penned. Said story concerns mild-mannered family man Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal), who sets out on a long-haul overnight drive through the desert with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teen daughter India (Ellie Bamber). Unfortunately, the family literally runs into a car carrying a trio of vicious, wild-eyed good ol’ boys, who menace the Hastings before eventually forcing them off the road. Led by a cunning, swaggering sadist named Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the three violently terrorize the family, taking a particular delight in humiliating Tony for his femininity and bourgeois softness.
With a nightmarish inevitably, the family is strong-armed into separate cars and driven out into the desert, where the women are eventually raped and murdered. Tony manages to escape, cowering behind rocks to evade his captors and eventually trekking back to civilization on foot. This sets up the second part of Edward’s novel, in which a shattered Tony allies with composed but steel-willed police lieutenant Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) in order to track down Ray and his accomplices and bring them to justice. When the unlikely pair’s efforts to achieve this through traditional police work and the criminal courts are stymied, Andes doesn’t have to ask Tony twice if he is amenable to pursuing less legal means in order to exact his revenge.
Susan at one point concedes to a co-worker that she has been musing about Edward for some time, but it is the arrival of his novel and, more significantly, the vexing experience of reading it that truly awakens her long-buried memories of their relationship. Through flashbacks that are presented chronologically, Ford mixes in a third narrative (Story C) concerning the bitter saga of Susan and Edward’s passionate courtship, short-lived marriage, and ugly divorce. Not incidentally, Susan and Edward are childhood acquaintances. Both are expats from the same Texas town, both left home to pursue careers in the arts, and both nursed an adolescent crush on the other. Even less incidentally, Edward, like the fictional Tony, is also played by Jake Gyllenhaal.
Gradually, as Ford reveals fragments of their brief time together, the picture of Susan and Edward’s estrangement slides into sharper focus. It is shown to be a relatively banal split, albeit one with a rather nasty punctuation mark at its conclusion. The things that initially attracted Susan to Edward—his warmth, romanticism, sensitivity, and decency—are the very things that she eventually comes to loathe. This unfolds exactly as predicted by her martini-sipping, rigidly coiffed patrician mother (Laura Linney, hamming it up fabulously in a glorified cameo). Susan gradually grows repulsed with Edward’s oblivious resolve to establish himself as a writer, with his failure to refine his authorial voice, with his puppy-dog need for shallow approval, and most of all with his surrender to a humdrum, middle-class life while he waits for his big break. Having abandoned her own dream to become an artist, Susan sees herself as the hard-working realist who knows when to put away childish things. (She doesn’t admit as much, but she also yearns to be surrounded by beautiful, expensive things, and it becomes clear that Edward will never be able to provide such luxury.) Before long, she falls into bed with Hutton, abruptly ends things with Edward, and, as a final and irreparable act of disunion, secretly terminates the pregnancy that would have resulted in her and Edward’s first child. This does not remain a secret for long.
Meanwhile, Story B barrels towards its grisly conclusion, as Tony and Andes abduct Ray and one of his accomplices, Lou (Karl Glusman), with the aid of sympathetic off-duty police officers. Although determined to execute his family’s slayers, Tony’s nerves get the best of him, resulting in a scuffle that ends with Lou dead and Ray fleeing into the night. The vigilantes split up to find their escaped prisoner, and it is Tony who ultimately stumbles into Ray, following a hunch to the same decrepit shack where his wife and daughter were murdered. Evincing not a shred of remorse, Ray finally confesses to raping and killing them, while spitefully boasting of the pleasure he took from the act. Tony at long last shoots the man dead, but not before Ray gets the jump on him and brutally bludgeons him. Hours later, Tony, limping and half-blind, stumbles out into the morning sunlight, only to accidentally and fatally shoot himself in the stomach.
Finishing Edward’s novel in a rush, Susan makes arrangements via email to meet her ex-husband for a late dinner at a posh restaurant. She fusses over her clothes and makeup—pointedly removing her wedding ring—and arrives before Edward. While she sips whiskey, the appointed time for their meeting comes and goes. She waits for an indeterminate period in anxious silence, looking up expectantly over and over, until the other diners have all departed and the wait staff begin closing up. It is excruciatingly clear that Edward is not coming. Cut to black.
Purely at a formal level, Nocturnal Animals is a delectable work of cinema. Consistent with Ford’s debut feature A Single Man, his new film is visually luscious, particularly in its depiction of the mod elegance that characterizes Story A. Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, a lensman who is prolific but usually more workmanlike than masterful, gives Susan’s refined world an exacting chilliness that invites both envy and repulsion. For Story B, he relies more extensively on restless handheld camera work—reflecting Tony’s fearful circumstances and perpetually teetering psyche—and often bestows the light of the Mojave Desert (subbing for West Texas) with a ghastly jaundiced hue. Abel Korzeniowski’s score is unexpectedly sumptuous and romantic, but also disposed to linger daringly on harsh, murmuring strings for almost unbearable stretches of time in scenes of physical tension. Production designer Shane Valentino and his team exhibit a literate, comprehensive attention to every element of the film’s look, providing each story with its own evocative vocabulary. Valentino has named Red Desert, Paris, Texas, Lost Highway, and Minnie and Moskowitz as key references, and one would be hard-pressed to dispute such choices. Editor Joan Sobel, however, is the crew's clear MPV. Her efforts are superb, and occasionally downright breathtaking, splicing together the three storylines with unerringly placed exhales and eruptions. (One particular three-shot phrase is this writer’s favorite five seconds of cinema in 2016.) Her cuts receive a robust assist from the film’s sound team, who nudge effects ranging from gunshots to trilling crickets such that they trespass across narrative boundaries.
It is ridiculously easy to gush about how striking Nocturnal Animals is visually and aurally, but the film’s essential thrill works at a higher level than pure aesthetics. It rests on the way that Ford successfully maintains three distinct and seemingly incongruent tones, one for each narrative. Story A is a cold, vaguely repellant depiction of the ultra-wealthy extremities of L.A.’s contemporary art world, with all the narcissistic detachment, pretentious absurdity, and inane trend-sniffing that setting implies. Susan’s present-day story isn’t actually much of a story at all, as nothing particularly noteworthy occurs over her long weekend. She catches up on work at the gallery, presides over a board meeting, and lazes around her mind-bogglingly flawless home, a somber, modernist mansion that seems more like a museum than a space where actual human beings eat and sleep. However, the inertness of Story A reveals Ford’s acuity for the way that absorption in a ripping good work of fiction—not to mention wallowing in reminisces and regrets—can crowd out the real world. As she is gripped by the tale of Tony’s appalling tragedy and blistering vengeance, Susan’s daily existence seems to recede. By design, the viewer likewise finds themselves more invested in the second-order fiction of the Hastings murders than with the first-order fiction of Susan and her tribulations—which, as problems of the mind and heart, feel somehow less “real” than Tony’s tale of corporeal violence.
Story B is as dreadful and intimate as Story A is gorgeous and detached: a pulpy tale of sweat, dust, blood, shit, phlegm, and vomit. It unfolds like the worst nightmare of every urbane liberal, in which a pack of braying asshole crackers comes roaring out of the wastes like War Boys under a Confederate flag. Of course, Edward’s book is just a retelling of the ageless American Frontier Story with a shuffling of race and class politics: women are threatened by sexual violence at the hands of savages, and the civilized man is obliged to protect them, or, failing that, perpetrate retribution. It’s a tale as old as The Last of the Mohicans, and so timeless that one of 2016’s best films is constructed on its foundations. Indeed, one of the reasons Story B works so well is that it depicts plausible events within a heightened register that is half pre-colonial ur-parable and half modern Pecos grotesque. The tragedy that befalls Tony and his family is believable in its generalities, but Ford gamely steers the depiction of those events—or, at least, the depiction of Susan’s conception of them—into borderline camp territory. Ray in particular is an almost farcically demonic figure: a violent, sexist, utterly pitiless monster possessing a diabolical shrewdness that belies his trailer park mien.
However, other aspects of Story B work to undercut the notion that Edward’s novel is some sort of blue state horror story about the all-consuming wickedness of poor, white country folk. Lieutenant Andes, with his quiet diligence and slow-boil righteous rage, embodies a native current of uprightness (or at least moral order) in an otherwise perilous and malevolent landscape. Meanwhile, Ford’s generous attentiveness to the physical and cultural minutiae of his Texas setting reveals an affection that could never survive in a more apocalyptic setting of chainsaw massacres. (This writer’s favorite details include the unfussy flourish of Ray swigging Shiner Bock beer, and the fact that the local small-town mall has an attached grocery store.) This isn't a hell on earth but the gritty, neo-noir Texas of cinematic myth, a republic of numerous films, from The Getaway to Blood Simple to Lone Star to the recent Hell or High Water. It is an instantly recognizable world, a lingering modern frontier where life is cheap and mean, but a bit of cowboy integrity still glints through the tarnish. Susan is captivated by this backdrop’s suggestive power, and by Edward’s prose, but crucially, the novel’s setting is not an entirely foreign country to her. She and her ex-husband both hail from Texas originally, after all. Edward is, in part, speaking to Susan through the common idiomatic language of their native state.
The memories that Edward’s novel conjures (Story C) jostle with fiction and the present in Susan’s psyche. These peeks at critical moments in Susan and Edward’s relationship possess an aura of amplified melodrama and pointed symbolism, rather that the sparing realism of, say, Scenes from a Marriage. They represent not necessarily how the relationship actually unfolded, but how Susan remembers it. Her recollection of the couple’s first meet-cute encounter as adults, for example, positively glows with romantic warmth. Adams and Gyllenhaal are supernaturally fresh-faced and palpably smitten, and the backdrop is a perfectly snowy Manhattan. A caustic fight over Edward’s writing and juvenile lack of ambition unfolds in the prosaic, claustrophobic confines of their living room, without of any sense of geographic locale. At the moment when Susan abruptly declares the marriage over, the pair are walking briskly down a nocturnal city sidewalk, perpetually out of step with one another, until Edward is left alone, bathed in a seething red neon glow. When Susan and Hutton are startled by the appearance of Edward as they depart the abortion clinic, he is, fittingly, standing pitifully in a pounding downpour, drenched to the bone.
Even the most blissful of these remembered scenes are tinted by a shadow of personal ruin, as the viewer is perpetually aware that not only is Edward and Susan’s relationship doomed, but the superficially successful life Susan builds after her first marriage eventually dissolves into unhappiness as well. Regret is the overwhelming feeling that characterizes Susan’s remembrances: that she married Edward in the first place, that she wasn’t more giving and patient in their relationship, that she sundered their union so pitilessly, that she discarded Edward in the pursuit of material comforts, that she didn’t heed her mother’s oracular pronouncements, and on and on. Indeed, Susan's contrition is established so emphatically with respect to her abortion in particular—"I'll live to regret this," she mournfully declares immediately after the procedure, "I already regret it."—the film at times starts to feel uncomfortably like it is promoting infantilizing right-wing canards about reproductive choice. (More on that in a bit.)
Nocturnal Animals' final, unresolved scene is a smarting hoax that preys on the viewer's expectations, but, more significantly, it strikingly illuminates the way that the film’s three storylines fit together. Tony's condemnation of Ray's evil deeds echoes in the silence as Susan waits in vain for a reconciliation: "Nobody gets away with what you did. Nobody." Edward hasn’t forgotten about the meeting he arranged with Susan, and he hasn’t been waylaid by exigent circumstances. He has stood her up, deliberately and callously. It is his middle finger to her, a vengeance of the most off-handed and therefore contemptuous sort. By sending Susan his book—which he knows is a page-turner that will be critically and commercially successful—Edward provides the first component of a trap, and Susan builds the rest of it out of her own guilt and discontent. He knows that she will devour the novel eagerly, and that she will want to reconnect, possibly with a spark of hope that something could be mended or even rekindled between them. He crushes that hope by doing… nothing.
Crucially, the Edward of Story A never actually appears on screen. He is only seen through Susan’s memories in Story C, and as the face that she projects onto Tony in Story B. This underscores the fact that although Nocturnal Animals is, in a sense, the tale of Edward’s revenge, it is not proximally about Edward. It concerns Susan, and her struggle to cope with the wrong turns that she believes she has made in the course of her life. Regardless of how selfishly she acted in her first marriage, or how much the viewer is bidden to relish Edward’s understated retribution, Ford elicits sympathy for Susan by maintaining a soulful, humanizing focus on her. Even when the film lingers on the events of Edward’s novel for an extended period, it repeatedly cuts back to her, reclined on a couch or in bed, galley proof in hand, as if to remind the viewer that she is also experiencing the anxiety and agony that Story B conjures. It might be tempting to snort at the emotional distress of a whinging, privileged woman like Susan, but Ford repeatedly reinforces the universality of her regrets. “Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?,” she inquires rhetorically of an assistant (Zawe Ashton), echoing a sentiment that almost everyone over 30 has felt at one time or another. For all its melancholy and viciousness, Nocturnal Animals is in part a heady homage to the insight and perspective that good fiction can stimulate with respect to one’s own life.
Indeed, this is one of Nocturnal Animals’ primary interests: the role that both the creation and consumption of art plays in the understanding of the self. Critically, Ford concedes that art can be a ridiculous, trashy spectacle, its barons and bishops far removed from the workaday "real world" of more pressing concerns in which the masses are obliged to live. Susan acknowledges this when discussing the successful exhibition that she has just opened, featuring a video installation of nude, obese women cavorting in kitschy patriotic regalia. "It's junk. Total junk, " she declares in disgusted exasperation. Animals partly immunizes itself from categorization as a “pretty people with problems” picture by openly acknowledging the cozy loftiness of the world that Susan inhabits. At a dinner party early in the film, her friend Carlos (Michael Sheen, resplendent in a lavender blazer) exhibits a self-effacing awareness of their mutual privilege when he gently chastises her: "Oh, Susan. Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It's a lot less painful. And believe me, our world is a lot less painful than the real world."
Nonetheless, recognizing that art is decadent and classist by nature is emphatically not the same as advancing that it is pointless. Nocturnal Animals pulls off a striking thematic balancing act by simultaneously keeping aloft two superficially dissonant ideas: that art is a fatuous luxury, and that it can also be tremendously meaningful, particularly at a personal level. Virtually all of the conflicts in Stories A and C are related directly or indirectly to acts of artistic creation and consumption, and Story B is itself a work of art in which Susan is immersed for the bulk of the film. Animals asserts that art’s real power lies in the experiences that both the artist and observer bring to it. Its truths are emergent, not intrinsic. In flashback, Susan censures Edward’s early work as too blinkered and self-absorbed. “You should write about something other than yourself,” she advises. Her point is not groundless—Is there anything more clichéd than young male writers who write about young male writers?—but she permits her bitterness about her own admitted creative deficiency to blind her to the obvious. Namely, that all creators are beholden to their own subjective experiences, and the works they create will necessarily reflect those experiences.
Susan is submerged in the complementary phenomenon of audience-centered meaning as Edward’s novel begin to affect her in a profound manner. This is not limited to the way the book triggers her to revisit her past actions, but also includes her empathy and identification with Tony—and by extension Edward, via the spooky action at a distance of the author-reader relationship. (Edward, of course, is counting on this reaction in order to render his big Fuck You all the more hurtful.) Ford intersperses Susan’s journey through the novel with scenes from Story A in order to illustrate how experiencing art also colors the way that one sees the rest of the world. Abruptly, Susan becomes aware of works in her home and in the gallery that she has presumably seen countless times, but which freshly ensnare her attention once juxtaposed with Tony’s story: a rearing hoofed animal pierced by numerous arrows, like some taxidermist's riff on St. Sebastian; a photograph of man in a misty field, grinning despite the fact that a compatriot has a rifle aimed squarely at him; and a stark painting that simply spells out “REVENGE” in white block letters on a black background, a work that Susan does not even remember purchasing. (Subtlety is not a part of Ford’s arsenal.) Susan’s entire outlook seems to shift as she devours Edward's novel, not just in her assessment of her own history, but in her present-day judgments. In her gallery board meeting, she has a sudden change of heart about firing an employee. Her reasoning is practically a direct indictment of her past self for tossing Edward aside: “We hired her, we should support her. [...] Sometimes it's not a good idea to make such a big change.”
Edward’s book was, one assumes, not written solely to hurt Susan. He has been striving to become a successful writer his entire adult life, after all. Nocturnal Animals the novel is both a realization and a rejection of Susan’s long-ago criticism that Edward needs to write about experiences other than his own. On the one hand, Tony’s story is far removed from Edward’s own life. The author had his heart broken and his family preemptively voided, but he has never faced violence or trauma at a level approaching that which his protagonist endures. To anyone other than Susan, the novel’s blood-drenched potboiler style is unlikely to be mistaken for the author's cathartic navel-gazing.
However, there are unmistakable fragments of Edward and his life in the book, beginning with its setting in the novelist’s native Texas, which signifies scrutiny of the essential self. (Critically, Ford, like Susan and Edward, is originally a child of the Southwest, having grown up in the suburbs of Texas and New Mexico before finding his way to the commanding heights of the fashion world at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.) Paralleling Tony, Edward loses his wife and child, at least metaphorically, and he is similarly hollowed out by a poisonous concoction of sorrow, guilt, and anger. Tony’s perception of his failures—his weakness, cowardice, and indecisiveness—echo Edward’s own shortcomings in his marriage, at least as they were acidly expressed by Susan. Edward’s selection of a genre and milieu where masculinity is asserted through physical strength, intimidation, and violence is no accident. To an extent, Nocturnal Animals the novel is Edward’s attempt to grapple with his alleged deficiencies of manhood, and with the question of whether it is even desirable to correct such failings. By addressing the evergreen problem of vengeance’s futility within a familiar mythic Western framework, Edward is attacking the stickier, politically-charged question of what it means to be a man in the real world. Susan’s criticisms of a younger Edward are echoed discreetly in Andes’ doubtful, backhanded statements to Tony (“It's my understanding that these boys didn’t have any guns...”), and crassly in Ray’s emasculating taunts.
Laura Hastings is even, like Susan, a pale, strikingly attractive redhead. Likewise, India Hastings bears some resemblance to Susan and Hutton’s college-aged daughter (India Menuez), briefly glimpsed in some far-flung locale in the early morning embrace of a lover. (Susan is so shaken by the discovery of Laura and India’s bodies in the novel that she spontaneously calls her adult child, giving Ford a reason to work in an unnervingly gorgeous visual echo.) It is conceivable that such physical similarities are the conjurations of Susan’s mind rather than a product of Edward’s descriptive prose. In which case, it suggests less about Edward’s intentions than about Susan’s subconscious perception of the novel’s personal dimensions.
This underlines the notion that it is Susan, not Edward, who is perched at the film’s center. While not exactly an unreliable narrator in the conventional sense, all that occurs in Stories B and C is filtered through her viewpoint. The crushing rejection she experiences at the film’s conclusion owes its power to the discipline of Ford’s storytelling, and to Adams’ scrupulous, pitiful performance. Susan permits herself vulnerability, becoming receptive to the psychological heft of Edward’s novel, to her remorseful recollections, and to her ephemeral anticipation of a reunion—only to have it all revealed as a sad, small joke. Edward’s actions are not part of some grand Shakespearean scheme of bloody vengeance, but rather the signs of insouciant disdain. The indifference that he exhibits in reconnecting with Susan demonstrates that while he still nurses a grudge over being emotionally manhandled and abandoned, it is a small, restrained sort of bitterness. It compels him to send Susan a parcel, exchange a couple of emails, and flout a scheduled get-together, but nothing more. There’s something particularly cruel about this sort of marginal attention, recalling Elie Weisel’s aphorism that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference. A similar sentiment is expressed by Mad Men’s Don Draper in the Season 5 episode “Dark Shadows,” when he responds to an affronted copywriter’s pitying insult, “I feel bad for you” with the quietly ruthless, “I don’t think about you at all.” Edward clearly still thinks about Susan, but he certainly isn’t concerned about her. She's been packed away in some dim, musty subbasement of his heart and left to rot.
How one regards Edward’s scornful treatment of his ex-wife—and his assessment of her past sins—may depend to some extent on the value one places on closure and forgiveness. Such currencies are a staple of emotional self-help stratagems of both religious and secular species, but their significance can be overstated. As feminist writer and STI stigma activist Ella Dawson explains in a vital essay, “You Don’t Need to Forgive People Who Hurt You”:
There is a case to be made for letting go of what has happened to you in order to become who you are supposed to be. But I need to make the opposite case, in the interest of balance […] You do not need to forgive people who have been abusive to you. You do not need to rise above them, or make peace with them, or even pity them. […] Healing is about what is best for you. That might be forgiveness. But it might be moving to a new city, or writing a book, or calling him a human trashfire over drinks with your new best friends.
Dawson’s piece emphasizes the sexist social pressure on women to forgive the men who have wronged them, but her broader point about the fallacy of forgiveness’ intrinsic value is salient. The viewer is never privy to Edward’s first-hand views, but there are complementary truths about forgiveness that Susan might derive from his rough dismissal. One is never owed forgiveness, no matter how intensely one regrets one’s actions or wishes to make amends. One is never entitled to a second chance, or an opportunity to achieve closure. It’s not merely that some messes can’t be cleaned up. Sometimes the whole goddamn building surrounding the mess has to be bulldozed, even if the view from that one window was really lovely at a certain time of year.
There is plenty in Nocturnal Animals that invites quibbles. While Adams and Gyllenhaal are credible as both starry-eyed grad students and fortysomething parents, the notion that 30-year-old Armie Hammer could be the father of an 18-year-old daughter (at the youngest) is ridiculous to the point of distraction. The one downright tonally discordant section of the Animals is a mid-film sequence at Susan’s gallery, which includes both a glaringly miscalculated use of horror elements and a lazy tweaking of the art world’s image obsession. When Susan glimpses the leering face of Ray on an assistant’s smartphone, it’s a cheap jump-scare, but also a potential signal that the film is heading towards a Repulsion-like disintegration of sanity or reality. Yet Ford never revisits such funhouse methods again, which leaves the moment looking like a gaudy orphan. More trivial but less forgivable is a cheap shot at a botox-deformed gallery employee. Ford, as a product of both Houston and Milan, generally sticks the tricky landing of simultaneously adoring and satirizing both red state grit and high culture glamour. However, the gag in question just comes off as puerile snickering, and not the reflection of Susan’s own stunted self-awareness that was likely intended.
Other writers have observed that the film is oddly conservative in its depiction of abortion, arguing that the procedure is portrayed as if it were an unspeakable crime against the biological father, or even morally comparable to rape and murder. Ford’s almost offhanded presentation of the plot’s abortion revelation—and his antipathy for its stereotypical iconography—undercuts the notion that the film draws equivalencies between Susan’s termination of her pregnancy on one hand and the fictional deaths of Laura and India on the other. In the end, Susan’s abortion is treated less as an ultimate act of perfidy than as the final nail in the coffin of her relationship with Edward. (It is notable that Susan ends the pregnancy after telling her husband that their marriage is over. At that point, the fate of the embryo is really no longer in Edward's jurisdiction, so to speak.) Still, elsewhere the conception of abortion as a violence that should be prevented by honorable men is hammered with gusto: Just after the clinic flashback in Story C, Tony is depicted repeatedly raging, “I should have stopped it!” in Story B. Moreover, there is something vaguely disagreeable about an openly gay filmmaker depicting abortion as a treacherous act perpetrated by a selfish, shrewish woman. Ford may not have intended a misogynist connotation—and the specificity of his interest in Susan’s subjective experiences is indeed hard to reconcile with hateful aims—but it’s also undeniable that Nocturnal Animals is constructed partly on a hoary anti-woman stereotype, and that it exists within the context of an ugly misogynistic streak in gay male culture.
It is the film’s success as a dazzling, forceful work of cinematic provocation that makes such disconcerting gaffes worthy of attention and evaluation, however. Nocturnal Animals is not merely a superior work to Ford’s polished but comparatively starched A Single Man, but also a deliciously disturbing taste of the director’s emergent talent for combining formal virtuosity with thorny psychological themes. Few other films this year have managed the hat trick of being at once a breathtaking art object, a pulpy guilty pleasure, and a solicitation to think judiciously about one’s one choices and comportment.