Spoilers below for Nocturnal Animals.
Nocturnal Animals, the second film from Tom Ford, is the rare movie that has two endings. First, there’s the ending of Nocturnal Animals, the book, which author Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal) has sent to his ex-wife, Susan (Amy Adams), for mysterious reasons. The book follows Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal again) as he clumsily tries to avenge the rapes and murders of his wife and daughter. It ends with Sheffield lying facedown in the dirt, accidentally shooting himself in the stomach after killing the man who terrorized his family. Oh, and he’s also been struck in the eye with a farming implement. Not exactly a happy ending.
But it’s not that much more depressing than that the ending of Nocturnal Animals, the movie, which closes on Adams’s Susan, sitting at an opulent Los Angeles restaurant, finishing off her second expensive cocktail, waiting for Tony to arrive. He never does.
So, what the hell’s going on here? Is this all just a joke on poor Amy Adams? Why did Tony dedicate the book to her?
On the surface, Nocturnal Animals plays as a thriller in the Sam Peckinpah mold, a brutal allegory about the worst natures of men, mostly because of the story-within-the-story. Tony’s novel is pitch-black and disturbing, and Susan’s real life is aesthetically beautiful but devoid of substance, an empty exercise in wealth and beauty. (Ironically, a common criticism of Ford’s own work.)
It’s in Susan’s narrative that you can begin to suss out the complexity of the plot, which all dovetails in that ending. First, we have to go back to the beginning, and end, of Tony and Susan’s relationship. They meet as students, but divorce when Susan finds herself exhausted by Tony’s sensitivity, the thing that drew her to him in the first place. She leaves him for Hutton Morrow, the kind of stone-hewn alpha male who could only be played by Armie Hammer. After the breakup, Tony writes the novel he could never manage when he was with Susan, full of the type of vicious, aggressive action she seemed to be encouraging him toward.
Meanwhile, as Susan becomes transfixed by the book, we see a strange mirroring of its violence in the world around her. The movie’s first scene takes place at a gallery opening, where naked obese women dance around on video, a layered misogyny she seems, at most, ambivalent about. And as Susan falls deeper into Tony’s novel, these images keep appearing: an animal pierced by arrows; a painting on the wall that says “REVENGE”; an apparition appearing in a colleague’s cell phone. The art world is often criticized for celebrating subversion for subversion’s sake, but here, in light of her ex-husband’s descent into hell, these images take on actual meaning. As an artist, Tony’s work turns out to be disturbing and affecting, seducing Susan all over again with what seems to be the only grain of truth in her life.
Which brings us back to the final scene. Tony ghosts on Susan at their planned meeting, forcing her to confront her own superficiality, how easily she’s won back. On one hand, it’s a childish thing to do, rubbing her face in her own attraction; on the other, it’s the ultimate rejection of what he represents to her. For Ford, Tony seems to represent integrity, a person seeking truth and finding it at great cost. (Does he also represent, for the sophomore director, the virtues and opportunities of cinema? Maybe!) Susan, then, signifies the empty promise of luxury for its own sake. (Ergo, fashion, if we’re going full psychoanalyst here.) After all, in the book Tony’s doppelgänger loses everything twice over: His family is taken from him, and his pursuit of revenge costs him his life. Considering the book’s ending, Tony’s final rejection of Susan might also be costing him his life — but it’s the only choice he has.
At least those cocktails looked good.