They say that image counts for so much. That impression one gives off from a distance speaks volumes when one cannot be approached. Stand with perfect posture, dress yourself just-so, be seen in the right room and you seem like you have it all together, right?
But how often is that all a facade?
How many of these people would trade all of that style and success for true personal connection? How much of that is just “for show”? As chic as their lives seem, how many are actually emotionally bankrupt? How might that affect our perception of them…and how we measure-up?
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS introduces us to Susan Morrow (Amy Adams): a rather rich and successful art gallery curator in Los Angeles. When her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) goes out-of-town on business one weekend, she decides to dismiss her assistants and staff for a few days and keep to herself. Her energy, she decides, will be dedicated to reading the manuscript of an upcoming novel by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) – a book titled “Nocturnal Animals”, dedicated to her.
The book is about Tony and Laura (Gyllenhaal again and Isla Fisher). The couple are fictionalized versions of Edward and Susan who set out on the road with their daughter India. While driving on an isolated highway, Tony gets into a game of chicken and a mild case of road-rage with three roughnecks. Things go from bad to worse when India makes a lewd gesture and the men give chase.
The resulting confrontation finds the family pulled apart, having us follow Tony as he is abducted, beaten, and left abandoned in the Texan desert. When he stumbles back to town, he is pointed towards a morally compromised lieutenant named Holt (Michael Shannon). Holt breaks the bad news to Tony: his wife and daughter were found raped and murdered.
As Susan reads the novel, she is haunted by her own shortcomings and poor decisions. She finds her mind drifting back to her relationship with Edward and all its ups and downs.
Like Tony, she is sentenced to reflect on her sins…her choices…and where it all went wrong. Like Tony, she is stuck wondering “what if?”
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a difficult film that has an awful lot to say about pride.
Front and centre is the pride of Tony, and the pointed threats to his masculinity by the roughnecks. How different his fate might have been if he’d just decided not to engage, decided to protect his family in his car and not get into a game of chicken on a desolate highway. In using this device to set Tony’s story in motion, it underlines just how much damage men can cause whenever their masculinity is threatened.
Sure, things got worse when India flipped-off the rednecks…but you have to believe that there were much better ways of handling the situation that Tony does.
What if he’d checked his pride? Might his tragedy been averted? If this sort of threat to masculinity didn’t shake down in every corner of the world on every single day, might Edward’s novel seemed completely implausible?
However, this is all too common. Threaten a man’s pride, and watch him do something dumb.
However, Tony isn’t alone in his feelings of threatened pride.
Susan also has her vanity challenged and doesn’t seem to know how to properly deal. What is she doing spending energy and effort on ghosts from her past when she has so much going for her? Just what is a successful curator doing fixated on the work of someone she personally shunned?
She cannot face reality, and because of that courts high amounts of pain. The pain comes in part from memories of past mistakes, and the pain likewise comes in the form of the lie she is living with the very remote Hutton. What’s the point of having an all-american on your arm if you can’t put both arms around him from time to time?
Tom Ford’s film wants us to see things as they are, and not concern ourselves with what we want them to be. I think that’s what he’s getting at with a credit sequence featuring full-figured women dancing nude in slow-motion. It’s not something we are accustomed to seeing, and yet here we find ourselves watching intently. Might we like to change something about the imagery? Perhaps – but that’s not a possibility. So why even consider it? Why not take in the truth of what is there, instead of fixating on what we wished was there instead?
It’s what Tony struggles to accept: that avenging the rape and murder of his wife and daughter will not bring him peace. It’s also what Susan cannot understand: that she is too deeply identified with the life she has built around her to even try to shake-free of the emotional shortcomings that are packaged with it.
Things are what they are, and wishing you could see other things does not change the reality of what has been put before you.
To quote The Wire, nobody wins – one side just loses slower.
NOCTURNAL ANIMALS is a sleaze in a finely-tailored suit. This is a handsomely-told tale of people who with quite questionable character. It is a story of severe damage and desperate attempts to undo what has been done.
The difficulty of the film is that it takes people we don’t like and stands them in a line ahead of those that we do. So when time comes for the tragedy to hit home, it struggles to get past the unsympathetic barrier. The shock and sadness feel contained…as if these particular nocturnal animals are behind glass.