I really like going to the movie theatre. There’s something about the experience - you’re forced into a room where it’s socially unacceptable to check your phone or be connected with the outside world, the screen is huge, and there’s a vaguely social aspect to it where you are having a shared experience with a group of strangers. Last weekend, my movie was Nocturnal Animals. I’m going to discuss what I found interesting about the movie here which will include discussion of the ending and the themes that I picked up.

Nocturnal Animals is a movie about Susan, the owner of an art gallery (Amy Adams) who receives a book from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhall) which is dedicated to her and purports to be about their now long-in-the-past failed marriage. As Susan reads the book she is brought into Edward’s spell as a writer - the book (also called Nocturnal Animals) is a gripping “true crime” novel of a man traveling through West Texas (named Tony, played by Jake Gyllenhall) who has his wife and daughter kidnapped by an unstable man named (think a tuned down Frank Book from Blue Velvet) and his two friends. The movie cuts between Susan’s unhappy life with her current husband (who is unfaithful to her), a narrative where Susan is reading his book in which she inserts her vision of Edward into the role of Tony, and Susan’s memories of her past relationship with Edward and their unhappy relationship that led to an unhappy split (brought on by some admittedly horrible actions on her part - an abortion and potential infidelity; quite melodramatic). The plot needs a bit of a diagram to explain it but it all makes sense while it’s happening.

In Edward’s book, Tony’s wife and daughter are found dead after having been raped. Edward works through the law and he meets a lawman played by Michael Shannon (I know him from his role in Boardwalk Empire among other things), who eggs him on to find his justice outside of the boundaries of the law. The way I think we are meant to interpret this book-within-a-movie is that it is a document of how hurt Edward feels relative to the end of their relationship - the main character has his family ripped from him and then later found dead and violated. When Edward goes looking for revenge he eventually ends up in a room alone with Roy where the antagonist describes the reason he kills - “it’s fun”. Edward shoots Roy, ends up blinded in their confrontation, then ends up shooting himself in the stomach - possibly by accident.

While Susan is reading this book, she ends up recalling their unhappy relationship - though Edward initially seems very appealing, he lives detached from reality and constantly tries to push her into being a person that she’s not comfortable with. Edward tries to explain that if you love each other, you work it out - but this view seems just as unrealistic. Eventually Susan ends up cheating on him with the dashing Hutton who we find twenty years on is unfaithful to her and in financial distress. Eventually Susan finishes the book and asks to meet Edward for dinner - he accepts, she is excited, as if something might be rekindled - and then he never shows. The credits roll.

There are some immediate readings of the movie that I’m not really happy with.

  • Is the lesson that Susan was an awful person for betraying Edward years ago when their relationship was unhappy?
  • Should Susan have abandoned the person she became to be the person that Edward was looking for her to be?
  • Are we meant to think that Susan is shallow, as she’s so easily seduced back by the power of her ex-husband’s words?

(I found people saying all of these online.) None of these readings seem interesting enough for me, and they take the book-in-a-movie way too much at face value.

We definitely see that Edward’s book is gripping for Susan, and deeply impactful to her. However the distance the book has from the movie’s narrative makes the book’s number of ridiculous tropes clearer - of course he becomes emasculated by a group of more sexed men, of course his wife and daughter are found not just dead but raped, of course he’s got a lawman who’s pushing him into taking his revenge. Tony is an extremely passive protagonist - what does he do for himself, vs what do people do to him or ask him to do? I think we can take it at emotional face value - Edward was hurt, and so he wrote a book - but we have to be careful to bless it as a literary work. The way I interpreted the final confrontation between Tony and Roy is that Edward has put what he thinks Susan’s ethos is into his antagonist - she does what feels good, she won’t work through the hard parts if it doesn’t feel good. Essentially the book-in-a-movie is a big “fuck you” to Susan - not just the emotional pain she’s put him through, but how he sees her live her life. No wonder he doesn’t show up at the end; nineteen years later, he’s still really pissed off.

However I have to ask, is he right to still have this wound? Is all he’s created after nineteen years a somewhat veiled response to his ex-wife leaving an unhappy relationship? (We learn that he hasn’t remarried - Susan thinks this is sad.) Susan’s life may not be the happiest, but she’s changed herself a lot since their graduate school relationship, she’s remarried, she has a daughter - she’s lived a life that’s more the life she ended up wanting, rather than the life that Edward thought she wanted. It’s not her fault things aren’t as happy as this imaginary fairytale of perfection Edward has constructed for her.

On the whole I enjoyed this movie and loved the amount of ambiguity it built into its structure that allows the audience to think through this space. The lack of information we get from the flashbacks allows just a few conversation to stand-in for the lifespan of an unhappy relationship. Nineteen years later, Edward’s still constructing these fantasies, and his book ends up feeling like the emotional response to the fact that his fantasy marriage to Susan was ripped away from him. Ultimately I don’t have a lot of pity for Edward’s (unseen) character in the present.