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The Real Message Behind ‘Nocturnal Animals’

Politics and society are topics often explored in films. Dramas such as The King’s Speech carry enormous historical value, while stories like August Osage County make us second guess our lives and beliefs. Much like writers, filmmakers like to leave an impact on spectators, to make the gears of their brains spin as they make sense of the messages left in between the lines. However, not many films explore the ugliest side of society, the unspoken truths many refuse to acknowledge.

Nocturnal Animals is one such film. Described many times by Tom Ford (writer, director, and handsome vampire/fashion designer) as a cautionary tale about love and committing to someone, the psychological thriller lets out more than it intends to. Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals follows Susan (Adams) as she reads a novel written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) about the dramatic and violent story of a man (Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal) who loses his wife and child in the hands of a trio of lunatic hillbillies.

Catching the movie’s meanings can be difficult to some, but it’s possible to understand its core message right off the bat. As Tom Ford stressed multiple times in interviews, this is a cautionary tale about loving someone and the possible consequences of falling out of love with them. However, this tale involves a number of external aspects that directly influence relationships, such as the ambitions, desires, and dreams of the individuals. Susan’s and Edward’s marriage failed due to their incompatibility, a reason that can easily describe any failed relationship. However, Tom Ford goes deeper into this reason, giving a surprising perspective over society and its demands.

“Enjoy the absurdity of our world. It’s a lot less painful.”

So says Carlos (Michael Sheen) after a brief discussion regarding Susan’s opening night. She is a Texan art gallery owner residing in Los Angeles who has everything most people desire: a big, modern, and beautiful house, a slick and imposing wardrobe, a beautiful husband, status, and, of course, a lot of money. However, she isn’t happy.

The first time we’re introduced to Susan is after the alluring opening sequence. She breathes heavily as her eyes scan the spacious room. The people appearing in the next shot are present to witness the exposition she put together, a curious display depicting socially imperfect women dancing naked. These women rest silently over tables while their videos are showcased in big wall-mounted monitors.

These first shots may be somewhat disturbing to some, and might even make little to no sense; just the kind of thing contemporary artists do that everyone pretends to understand, some would say. However, the scene of Susan taking in the filled room and the context of her exposition are a short and powerful description of the woman.

Susan is gorgeous. She is the kind of person people notice, and not only thanks to her red hair. She looks imposing, and although serious, there’s a certain gracefulness to her every move. Her sad eyes leave a lot to the imagination, and her composure is alluring. Who she presents herself to be is everything kids want for themselves when they grow up. Yet the women lying naked on the lit tables are the opposite. They look gross according to social standards, people whose examples should not be followed. Still, on the videos, we see them either having fun or being strangely seductive.

Susan chose to be someone people look up to, and as we witness later in the film, it made her unhappy. She did horrible things and settled for loneliness in order to maintain her poised appearance. However, just like anyone else, she aspires to be happy, and despite their looks, the women exposed are happy in one way or another. They might be “ugly” on the outside, but graceful on the inside.

The “world” Michael Sheen’s character refers to is the life of a rich person. The quote acknowledges that appearances are everything to them, and while holding up a façade is painful, it’s not as much as not being part of these circles. As the saying goes, money doesn’t buy happiness – but at least you get to be sad in Paris.

“If being crazy means living life as if it matters…”

This line (which ends in “… then I don’t care if we’re completely insane.”) was powerfully delivered by Kate Winslet in 2008’s Revolutionary Road. Directed by Sam Mendes and starring Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, it tells the story of a couple struggling with life in the suburbs, something they despised when young. One day, tired of everything people expect of her, April (Winslet) suggests that they move to Paris, where she can work as a secretary and he can rest, think about what he really wants for his life, and maybe write. It seems like a perfect plan, except that they have two children. Their friends and neighbors don’t react well to their decision, as it goes against everything society entails.

Although the stories of each take completely different turns, Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals have their take on social demands as a common aspect, and both explore it brilliantly. Whereas April attempts to break free from housekeeping and dealing with people she couldn’t care less about, Susan struggles to maintain the duties and relationships expected of her. As April’s ideals have a direct impact on her relationship with Frank (DiCaprio), so does Susan’s and her relationship with Edward.

What we enjoy, the career paths we choose to follow, and whether we prefer cats or dogs are not the details that define us. Our goals and aspirations dictate what we do, how we act, the connections we make, and whether we prefer dogs or cats. The relationship between Susan and Edward doesn’t work because they aspire to completely different things. While he wanted to be a writer and encouraged his then-wife to be an artist, she pushed back by questioning his goals and refusing to be creative, as that wouldn’t get her where she wanted to be.

In a flashback, Susan’s mother (Anne, played by Laura Linney) pins down the exact reason why her marriage with Edward would fail. In her own words, “[…] you are very strong-willed, and Edward, as sweet as he is, he’s too weak for you.” The women further discuss that point, and Anne finishes it by saying “I know you think we don’t care about the same things, but you’re wrong. In a few years, all these bourgeoise things (as you so like to call them) are gonna be very important to you, and Edward’s not gonna be able to give them to you.” What comes next may seem biased and unfair, but it’s a crude description of how society perceives people like Edward: “He has no money. He’s not driven. He’s not ambitious. […] I understand what you see in Edward. I get it. […] He is a romantic. But he’s also very fragile.”

Susan tried to fight her luxurious ambitions by marrying a man who cared not about such trivialities. For him, making a change was more important than keeping up appearances, which gradually led her to passively aggressively encourage him to be as ambitious as society entails.

Deeper meanings

In the end, Nocturnal Animals is about being careful with who you love, as that relationship can result in pain. However, the nuances of that aren’t so simple. While it’s always important not to lead anyone on, it’s also imperative to know one’s self before committing to others.

Wise men and women will say that it’s important to love yourself before asking someone else to love you. Finding your own happiness is far more powerful than relying on the affection of others to bring you joy. Relationships where one person can only find happiness within their partners instead of with them are doomed from the start. Susan never found happiness, even in the things she sought or the man who craved the same objectives, but she knew all too well what she wanted, and had only to welcome change.

In the end, the cautionary tale of Nocturnal Animals is finding out who you really are and what you desire. Only then can you find someone to be happy with, not someone who can adapt to your needs. Forcing an incompatible relationship may result in deep scars that could’ve been avoided simply by being honest with yourself.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. ralph panhuyzen

    December 11, 2022 at 12:09 pm

    With the novel, Edward wanted Susan to undergo the pain he felt about losing his wife and child, feeling violated as another man entered Susan’s life, and him being left alone empty-handed. The clue for everyone to see? The wife that ended up dead on that fateful, nocturnal trip, looks very much like Susan. At the end, one might even conclude that Edward took his own life…

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