NOCTURNAL ANIMALS and Channeling Pain Through Art​

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by: Jerry Smith



Tom Ford’s NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is one of the most realistically sad and beautifully heartbreaking films I’ve ever seen and there’s a lot of power held within film making on that level. When an artist approaches a canvas, they pour themselves into that piece of art and the idea of a broken heart-ed man expressing his loss, pain and emptiness via sending his ex wife a novel that metaphorically deals with the end of their relationship and various other subjects is an interesting premise that this writer found completely compelling. Filled with not just memorable but utterly heartbreaking performances by Jake Gyllenhaal (playing two different characters), Amy Adams, Michael Shannon and Isla Fisher, as well as terrifyingly effective and villainous turns by Aaron-Taylor Johnson , Robert Aramayo and Karl Glusman, it’s a film that allows its viewers to feel what its broken lead feels and deals with throughout the movie’s running time. I thought it would be an interesting time to tell you DCP readers about what the film meant to me, how it felt to watch the story play out and how the film’s themes and metaphorical context really helps show how heartbreak can affect us all. This piece is full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film and would rather do so without knowing the film’s specific plot-points, feel free to wait to read this one until you do just that. 


NOCTURNAL ANIMALS opens with Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy, upper class art dealer who is not only unhappy in her life, but with who she has become. Belonging to the snobby and pretentious art circle, Susan hates the art she deals with, feels alone in her marriage to her husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer) and suspects him of cheating on her. There’s a sadness to Susan, a regret deep within her that we as viewers don’t quite understand at first, and when she receives a manuscript of a new novel by her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), she has a curiosity as to why Edward would send it to her, having been divorced for a good 19 years at that point. The name of the novel, Nocturnal Animals, refers to a time when Edward called Susan just that, due to her lack of sleeping. 


Lonely, while Hutton is off on a business trip (in which he is having an affair with someone else), Susan begins to read the novel and we are taken into the film’s second story line, the fictional story of Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a timid husband and father who takes his family on a long drive down what seems like a never-ending road to vacation. When Tony and his family come across a group of hoodlums playing around on the road in their cars, they get into somewhat of a vehicle altercation, leading to an intense set of events in which the manically trashy Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) and his pals Lou and Turk terrorize the film and eventually kidnap Tony’s wife, Laura (Fisher) and daughter. Tony is driven out to the middle of nowhere, where he eventually escapes but without initially finding his wife and daughter, who were stolen from him and taken away somewhere by Ray. 


The fictional story’s intensity and the character of Tony’s lack of stepping up and making sure his family weren’t taken affects the real world Susan, who eventually puts the book down, but not without allowing it to sit in her mind, also leading to her memories of reconnecting with Edward, back during their post-college days. Happy to see each other, the two old friends admit that they were each others’ first crushes and begin a relationship, which eventually makes way for a falling out years later, when Susan grows tired of Edward’s passion for writing, not liking his first book and allowing the advice of her mother that Edward isn’t good enough for her, to manifest in the marriage. Present day Susan remembers those experiences and as a viewer, you can tell she realizes that she has become everything she always hated, the kind of person like her mother, a person she swore she would never be. She realizes that Edward’s romanticism and passion for creativity and going for what you believe in was something she gave up, when she met Hutton years before, culminating in an affair that led to not only hear leaving Edward but terminating the pregnancy of her and Edward’s unborn child, a sad moment in which Susan and Hutton sees Edward standing at the clinic in the rain, having seen what happened. His heart is broken and there’s a damage in Gyllenhaal’s eyes that helps us realize that the events in the fictional story are merely Edward’s attempt to articulate the hurt and pain over feeling like somebody had taken Susan from him and when we’re put back into the fictional story, we’re shown that Ray and his friends had raped and murdered the wife and daughter of Tony, showing us (and the character of Susan) that the story is a metaphor from that loss, that heartache that Edward felt. 


Susan, realizing just how bad she had hurt Edward, tries to reach out to him via e-mail, asking him to meet with her, something he eventually replies to, agreeing to meet. Committed to finishing the novel, Susan continues to read, putting us back into the story and taking us on a journey of Tony and a dying detective (played by Michael Shannon), trying to find and bring Ray and his friends to justice. When the law fails at doing just that, the detective and Tony decide to take justice into their own hands and hunt down Ray and his friends, resulting in the deaths of not only one of Ray’s buddies, but also Ray and after being blinded before Ray dies, Tony himself (from a gunshot he accidentally inflicted on himself after falling). It’s a powerful chain of events, which allows us to see that sometimes our own pain and grief can eventually be our own undoing, something that Susan begins to realize the more she reads and the more she examines her own life in the real world. 


Little by little, Susan begins to strip away the glitz and facade of her perfect life, in an attempt to get back to who she really was when she was with Edward, a man who truly loved her for who she was and wanted to embrace her dreams and aspirations, before being brutally left by Susan. It’s a sad film, and when Susan takes off the makeup and wants to look how she did when they were together for their dinner meeting that Edward agreed to, she realizes just how badly she hurt Edward, when he simply does not show up.


NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a film that does an excellent job of really putting heartache and pain under a microscope and it makes us look deep within it’s dual timelines to see what each and every little setup means, eventually having all of its puzzle pieces fall firmly into place, revealing a upsetting and sad story of loss, pain, betrayal and hurt, how we can all hurt the ones we love and how it’s all about not losing touch of that loved one and trying to stay true to yourself and your heart, in spite of the world trying to suck the romanticism and hope out of your heart. We’ve been there, letting the ones we care about the most down and hating ourselves for it, it’s a part of life, but with films like NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, it helps us really take a look at the effects of just that, and allows us all to ask ourselves, “Was that person worth fighting for?” and maybe it’s the optimist in me, but after seeing the film, I’d like to think, yes, our hearts are worth fighting for. 

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