Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Words by Hiba Akmal
Nocturnal Animals (2016)
Fashion designer turned film auteur, Tom Ford’s second feature film explores the past, present and conflicted inner world of LA Art dealer Susan Morrow. Amy Adams’ intricate performance varnishes this neo-noir with it’s devastating portrayal of youth’s unjaded buoyancy and regret’s silent torment.
Directed by Tom Ford - the fashion designer turned filmmaker - Nocturnal Animals is a neo-noir psychodrama that delves into the youth, relinquished idealism and present dejection of its central character through three interlocking narratives. The past, present and and fictional dimensions of this movie are seamlessly mediated through the endlessly espressive visage of Amy Adams who plays the affluent but doleful LA art dealer, Susan Morrow.
Nocturnal Animals is rooted in the unsuccessful union of Morrow and Edward Sheffield, whose romance, to the disdain of Susan’s upper crust, uppity Texan mother - sealed the coming together of two inappropriately disparate backgrounds and classes.
What Susan defends as “sensitive” in Edward the writer, her mother taunts as “weak.” “The things you love about him now are the things you’ll hate in a few years”…she warns, when, “ all these bourgeois things are gonna be very important to you and Edwards not gonna be able to give them to you”
This premonition and its indictment on the naivete of ‘idealistic love’ underscore the entire film.
But from the outset, Ford wants us to know that that’s exactly what happened, and, in Susan’s words, in ‘horrible circumstances.” When the story commences with the delivery of Sheffield’s unpublished manuscript, to Susan’s immaculate LA home, written also in dedication to her, the first whiff of literary revenge is spawned.
You see, once happily married...Susan realizes a few devastating things...a) Edward’s not as great a writer as she first thought and b) she’s simply NOT happy with this life . SO she leaves him for the dashing (creepy) Hutton and re-attempts marital bliss in a home that lavishly returns her to her bourgeois origins.
Although the present day Eric never graces the screen himself , his spectre looms vengefully over the entire film as the various versions of him are summoned by Susan's reading of his manuscript and the forays into their joint past it triggers. So the film is like a russian-nesting doll structure, a story, within a story, one set in reality and one fabricated from it. The outer narrative is Susan’s world and the inner-literary vignettes which we too experience through her - are Edward’s attack, on her betrayal, on her return to the materialism of her family she so bemoaned in their youth. Interestingly, the movie is in fact an adaptation of a 1993 novel, Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. With certain revisions . In the novel, Susan is not Edward’s university peer but his professor - and this omission is a change of Ford’s I partially disagree with as it blunts the significance of their break up and the depth of his scorn.
Ford reflected that for him - this film is about “finding the people in your life that mean something to you, and holding on to them,” and yet also about “ “letting go of what you think you are supposed to be.” This means it bears no moral judgement on what Amy did - it was not right or wrong of her to recant her youthful ideals. Rather, the film is a tribute, a testament to the romantic ebbs and flows of life - the natural rotation between our impassioned lofty pursuits and the compromise that reality inevitably imposes on them.
In line with this dissonance, the contrast between Susan’s life and Edward’s novel are jarring. In her affluent high-society world, Adam’s exhibits a cool, steely beauty. Dark, wet rougey lips and metallic kohl-framed are striking against her ivory complexion and flaming red hair. Her world is coloured in hues of grey, from the modern-stone-slab like mausoleum of her home, immaculately outfitted in matching stainless steel appliances, to her sharp and corporate formal attire. Dark blazers, dark heels, dark bold lips, and, as Edward would say, “sad eyes.”
This polished, restrained aesthetic is constantly disrupted by the west-Texan rural nowhere where the violence and murders of Sheffield’s novel unravel. Here we bear witness to the tragedy of Tony Hastings’ family - who when passing through a remote-no-signal desert highway are terrorised by a feral gang who, in an excrutiating series of events, kidnap, rape and murder his wife and daughter.
The rest of the narrative, punctuated by Susan's distressed reponses, recounts his pursuit of justice - which ultimately must take place outside of a legal system which renders the murderers free under insufficient evidence. So, a grizzly and lawless pursuit climaxes with Tony shooting the murderer and then himself in a desperate restoration of justice.
No doubt, this conclusion is a deliberately violent vindication by Sheffield against the Moran family's condescension of his ambitions and character. Edward is not weak. Rather, as Tony’s undying resolve reflects, he too is capable of inflicting devastation. And as his manuscript and it’s evident impact on Susan attest, his life is potent subject matter for the wielding of such literary provocation.