Nocturnal Animals (2016)

*. These notes are going to seem schematic but there’s no getting around it.
*. First we have Susan (Amy Adams). She is a visual artist living in L.A., which is every bit as awful as it sounds. The “scene” is phony as hell and everyone in Susan’s elite circle knows it. They describe the culture, by which they mean the narrow cultural environment they inhabit, as junk. They take drugs, go to therapists, live in barren modernist mansions, attend vacuous parties, wear ridiculous costumes, get plastic surgery, and sleep around. You know the drill.
*. Into this artificial hot-house ArtWorld comes a nasty bit of rough in the form of a manuscript novel written by Susan’s ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). It arrives wrapped in what looks like butcher’s paper and Susan gets a paper cut that blossoms in blood when she opens it. Yes, it’s that raw. The novel, titled Nocturnal Animals, deals with a horrific double murder in the very un-tony wastelands of West Texas. Confronted with the Real Thing, Susan is forced to reassess the mess of her vacuous life. Why did she ever leave Edward to marry the worthless pretty boy Hutton anyway? And why did she abort Edward’s child? That wasn’t right.

*. All of this adds up to a pretty conventional way of thinking about artistic production, and in particular a way of thinking that’s deep within the American grain. Authenticity is rated as one of the supreme virtues among artists, and the phoniness of the L.A. scene disqualifies it from our serious consideration. What is it, though, that makes Edward’s novel more real? It’s a dusty Texas tale of crime and revenge, rather conventional itself in almost every way. One imagines Edward wrote it with one eye on selling the film rights, as it seems geared toward that audience. Is it violence alone that makes us see it as a more authentic form of art? Because it draws forth such a visceral response? More of a response anyway than the RE/VEN/GE painting hanging in Susan’s gallery.
*. By this way of looking at things (and this is the way Nocturnal Animals looks at things), Susan has committed a sin against art by trading her passion for . . . well, if not glory then at least a really nice home. Writer-director Tom Ford thought this was a movie “about not throwing people away,” but even more than that it’s about not throwing one’s dreams away. Susan throws away both people and dreams and so she must be punished.
*. Her punishment takes the form of being stood up at a fancy restaurant by Edward at the end. This seems a bit petty to me, but then Susan lives in a social milieu where such a snub might be expected to hurt. For her it’s an act of violence. Why she doesn’t just use her cellphone to call him up or text him is a mystery though.

*. It’s that analogy and mirroring between the “real” but fictional violence of Edward’s novel and the real but abstract violence of Susan’s fake world that drives Nocturnal Animals, though I don’t think it’s all that successful in the end. The thing is, Ford stacks the deck too high against poor Susan. One comes away thinking there is more that might have been said in her defence. Edward, on the other hand, becomes the hero of his own story. He is no longer the weakling or wimp who teaches creative writing, and is allowed his fictional and real-life revenge on the art snobs. But since we never meet the new Edward we have no idea how much satisfaction this brings.
*. I think in part because of Ford’s background in fashion and design more attention is paid to these elements in the film than they deserve. I don’t think this is a particularly stylish film, aside from the effect that is gone after in a handful of well-arranged shots. In some ways I think the overripe visuals are meant as a kind of a joke, from the strange glasses Susan and her assistant wear to the odd recurring motif of women’s bums. As for the dancing fat lady who does the opening credits, I sense an homage to David Lynch, but without any further meaning.
*. Individually, neither of the two stories in the movie stands up as all that compelling, though Michael Shannon’s ungraceful sheriff is worth a tip of the Stetson. Nevertheless, as mutually reinforcing threads they do weave together in an interesting way. The novel expresses Edward’s bitterness and rage, and there’s an argument that has been made that such bitterness is an artist’s primary fuel. This is why Susan gets the dedication. Out of his need for revenge Edward can create art, whereas Susan only has regrets. One day, however, might she not use Hutton in a similar way? There’s hope for her yet, if life makes her miserable enough to be great.

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