Nocturnal Animals (2016) – Review / Analysis

We’re about to go deep

“Nocturnal Animals,” tackles the story of a mysterious, revenge-fueled writer (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is intent on dragging up the past and reminding his ex-wife Susan (Amy Adams) of the history of pain she’s caused him. His torturous tale works singularly as a piece of dramatic fiction of destructive loss, but also as a piece of deeply personal and inspired art. I could say the same about Tom Ford (the director), but with a slightly different meaning. Where Edward creates, Ford explores.

Edward’s story is an exercise in masking his experiences, history and emotions in fictional narrative. Ford’s story is one that observes interpretations, responses and inspirations in art. Both are tackling the personal relationship between art, you and the artist.

Art bares more influence than just response, we account for inspiration, reason, time, place etc. These are the qualifications for “good art”, great art historians will consider these more than anyone. But, how often does the art itself consider these points? Textually speaking that is.

What inspires true art? How does this inspiration show? How does inspiration affect us?

While Nocturnal Animals might’ve swerved giving these questions a definitive answer (because who’s to say for certain?), Ford has fictionalised his own thoughts and experiences in Nocturnal Animals, simultaneously exampling and tackling its own themes.

Let’s consider the implications of casting Isla Fisher as Laura Hastings, Edward’s fictional answer to Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). Comparing Laura and Susan relies on two factors, their superficial similarities and our contextual knowledge of Adams and Fisher. Ford is playing with how some ideas work within the film’s internal logic but how we would have a stronger understanding of them when we paired the situation with prior information external to the film.

Art is a reflection of what we experience, perceive and understand.

The film’s three stories greatly expand on these concepts. We have, A) an adaptation of Edward’s novel (with Edward playing the part of his lead): inspired by his perspective, reflecting on the effects their separation had on him. B) an insight into the transformation of Susan, pre and post separation and C) a small retelling of Susan and Edward’s relationship: comparing Susan to Susan now and Edward to Tony AKA Edward now. These two halves of the same story offer subjectivity and objectivity through the fictional novel, Nocturnal Animals, and the film itself respectively.

There’s a duality in Edward and Susan. At one time or another, they both reckon themselves as the protagonist and victim to their own stories: therefore they can’t, don’t and shouldn’t meet in either world. Edward lives a life where he sees a oneness with Tony’s tragedy, while Susan journeys towards understanding Edward’s pain in reality. Therefore, her story represents the reflective side of art and Edward’s is the expressive. She reflects from what Tony (Edward) expresses via the book. What’s occurring is a dialogue.

So let’s talk about communication. How does Ford’s art consider itself as a form of communication? During the desert scene, Ford intentionally pushes our field of vision beyond that of a normal eye. He places us throughout the environment, situating the camera far beyond and above the barely visible Tony. We’re overwhelmed by the awe and danger of the blistering yet chill-like desert. Like a still fire. He’s depicting Tony’s current mindset; fear, confusion and belittlement. Yet you should remember that Ford is giving us an interpretation of Edward’s text (it may be Susan’s, maybe his own). When the parallel between experience and expression is already established we can then address the differences between how these work in novel and film form; our perspective, situation and reception.

As you read text, you may create different images from what the author intended to convey. That’s obvious stuff. If I may, I’m going to get a bit extra textual with this. An Austrian-British philosopher named Ludwig Wittgenstein once explored the confusing process of how people communicate. He claimed, to much truth, that when we hear someone’s words, we create a mental image of that word. Say a person is referring to their snack last night, they remember a small piece of cake with a cream centre. The listener (having not seen the cake) draws their own image from their experiences. Sometimes this causes confusion; when it comes to understanding text, literary or visual, we mentally create our individual images and respond accordingly. Since Tony’s whole story is read by Susan we could assume this is her interpretation, but this isn’t an absolute. Surely all text, visual or literary, is open for audience interaction and interpretation? – regardless of the origin – vis-a-vis the film presenting Susan’s mental imagery or Fords own retelling. I’ve seen the film once, so I wouldn’t even dare approach this with authority. But I’m questioning everything, I’m wrestling with my thoughts. I urge you to do the same. Interact with your interpretations; delve into the subtext. Find something personal, a connection you can’t escape. I don’t know what answers you might find, but you’ll have to work for them. Today’s mainstream industry rarely encourages us to contemplate cinema on any meaningful level, but we really ought to; the reward gained from understanding how we interpret our media is a missed opportunity and an essential gift. I hope you find Nocturnal Animals inspiring. I can’t stop thinking about it, about everything.

Yet, I reluctantly question Ford’s ability to truly express himself on a platform so entirely servient to his character’s needs and the story’s themes. He’s appears trapped between Susan’s half of the film: objective reflection; and Edward’s novel: artistic expression. So where does Ford get to speak? I’d argue it’s in the flashbacks. Not in Edward’s neo-noirish thriller nor in Susan’s arthouse fashion drama, but in the flashback segments AKA the “pre-story”, that fit neither genre entirely. They’re moments full of crucial details that unfold with no overt sense of revelation but create a balanced platform for Edward and Susan to naturally reveal their true selves; definitely akin to the filmmaking style and temperament of many scenes in A Single Man, Ford’s first feature.

These flashback scenes are the fuel and foundation for my interpretations. Simultaneously reaffirming suspicions while opening doors to alternative interpretations.

For the first time Edward and Susan seem like humans; weak, insecure, nervous, open and available human beings. They’re a contrast to their current selves (although Edward’s current self exists only in speculation). In particular there’s one piece of information that I found very telling. Susan telling Edward that she doesn’t like how Edward “only writes about himself” (as we remember that he is playing as his own protagonist). But we’ve seen him address this in the original letter which read “it’s not the sort of stuff I used to write”. So, what exactly does that mean? How do we interpret the novel now? Do we take these words literally? Does this change the way we see the novel and how Susan see’s the novel? I would propose – no (…and yes). I think we have to go back to Ford’s choice to cast Isla Fisher. Simple logic would tell us how she reads the book. Since we now know that she thinks Edwards will “only write about himself”, it makes sense that in her interpretation Edward would play Tony. So when Laura, Tony’s red headed partner, is uncannily descriptive of Susan, why would she not act the part? If this were Susan’s interpretation of the book, and she read the role that clearly calls for a red haired, Texas sounding Amy Adams look-alike, why would Susan not immediately associate the character with herself? She did it with Tony. This could be argued one of two ways. 1. We’re seeing the objective adaptation of Edwards book, intended to be seen as Edward wrote it. Meaning that he’s still writing about himself and fictionalised the narrative in order to express his truth or 2. It is Susan’s interpretation, only it’s her misinterpretation of the book and neither Gyllenhaal nor Fisher should be the lead. Perhaps Armie Hammer is, and Adam’s should be Laura. Perhaps Susan distances herself from the role since she can’t align herself to the character. Perhaps she assumes Edward is writing about himself, perhaps the tales reads as a threat to Armie’s character. Then again – interpret it how you will. I argue for no.1 since I consider it to make the most sense. I think art is a reflection of self, genre included, and Edward’s novels seem moderately self indulgent and perhaps a tad narcissistic.

But that’s the wonderful, unique element that Nocturnal Animals has; every piece of new information couldn’t be more skillfully crafted. A lot of critics are deeming it “superficial”, but I implore them to take a hard look at how they’re approaching cinema, not because it’s an important thing to ponder from time to time (it is), but because it’s the ultimate key to understanding everything the film stands for. Nocturnal Animals is the film to watch if you’re a creator of any kind or even have a passing interest in what art means to the individual, to those who sees it and to those who interpret it (you, me, everyone). Even if you hate it, I’d still be glad that you watched it.

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