Beware the Sexist Celluloid Quilt that Is ‘Nocturnal Animals’

Nocturnal Animals

Written by Katherine Murray.

[Trigger warning: discussion of rape and murder]


The most generous interpretation of Nocturnal Animals is that it mimics the conventions of sexist storytelling in order to criticize them. If that’s the case, the criticism is buried too deep for me to see it and I’m left with the feeling that Tom Ford’s second feature film is a love letter to sexist movies instead.

The film uses a complicated, non-linear, story-within-a-story structure to mask the simplicity of its content. Susan (Amy Adams) is a wealthy gallery director who divorced Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) after a two-year marriage. About twenty years later, Edward sends Susan a galley of his new novel – the novel she didn’t believe he would ever manage to write – along with an invitation to meet when he’s in her city. Susan, who’s miserable with every aspect of her life since leaving Edward, is captivated by his story and experiences many emotions as she thinks about it on the couch – and in the shower, and walking up a spiral staircase at work, and standing in front of a painting of the word “Revenge,” and in other picturesque locations. Because it’s completely impossible that Susan could be happy that things have turned out well for Edward at the same time believing it was best to end their marriage, she decides she wants him back. It’s a plot line that marries the style and score of sexy Michael Douglas-era thrillers to the plot of an Avril Lavigne song (he was a sk8er boi / she said, “see you l8er, boi” / now she regrets all of her life decisions because he achieved something after they grew up). The complication is that Susan did something unspeakably horrible to Edward when they broke up – so unspeakable that we don’t learn what it was until late in the film, at which point it doesn’t really live up to the hype.

The film’s second narrative is a dramatization of the novel that Edward wrote, in which Gyllenhaal plays the lead character, Tony, and other Amy Adams-looking actresses with long red hair play the roles of Tony’s wife and daughter. Tony’s family heads out on vacation when they’re run off the road by three rednecks – I say “redneck” not because I think that’s a nice word to use, but because these are the same stock characters from every horror movie in this genre (think Straw Dogs, The Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance). There’s a long, tense sequence where the villains try to trick Tony into unlocking the doors to his car, except this scene is hindered by the fact that their ruse isn’t very convincing. The situation ultimately ends with Tony’s wife and daughter (who are referred to exclusively as “my wife,” “my daughter,” “your folks,” or “your women” from this point on) kidnapped, raped, and murdered while Tony survives. Tony teams up with a hard-bitten detective, who plays by his own rules, and plots to get revenge on the three men who ruined his life.

Nocturnal Animals

The opening credit sequence – which is a throwback in itself, both because it exists and seems to go on forever – features slow motion footage of plus size women and elderly women dancing burlesque to the tune of a sinister soundtrack. As I write this, I still have no idea why. I also don’t know why the men who murder Tony’s wife and daughter carefully arrange their dead and surprisingly unmarked bodies into a beautiful, vaguely suggestive pose on top of a bright red couch on the edge of their property, almost like they know Tom Ford’s going to take a picture of it. I don’t know why the kidnapping, rape, and murder of two women is only ever presented as a thing that happened to Tony. I don’t know why Susan can’t send a text message when she’s meeting someone at a restaurant. I don’t know why wearing dark red lipstick makes her a different person than she wants to be. I don’t know why Tony doesn’t listen to his wife when she warns him not to get out of the car. I don’t know why what Susan did to Edward is supposed to be as bad as anything any of the characters do in his novel. I don’t know why Susan wants to get back together with Edward. After being subjected to Edward’s great, amazing novel, I wished more than anything that I could divorce him.

Like a lot of sexist stories, Nocturnal Animals is vague about its attitude toward women, because it doesn’t truly regard women as anything but objects – things that derive meaning only through their relationship to the real subjects, men. Susan only matters in so far as she’s the focal point of Edward’s rage, and in so far as he’s able to corral her toward sharing his point of view – that he was great and their relationship was wonderful until she ruined it by doing something evil. Almost 100% of the time she’s on-screen, Susan thinks about Edward, feels emotions about Edward, and remembers Edward. All of the expressions on her face, all of her beautiful poses, everything she does and says – somehow, in some way, it’s all about Edward. He isn’t even there, and he’s still the entire focus of what is supposedly Susan’s story.

The women in Edward’s great, amazing novel fare even worse. A fridge is a fridge no matter what your production values are, and Tony’s wife and daughter are alive for one scene before taking a trip to the fridge so that we’ll understand why Tony feels bad. Then they are literally posed as objects to be viewed because: content imitating form.

There are signs that the film is aware of the way it objectifies women – for example, the burlesque dancers from the opening credits also become objects when they lie on slabs in the gallery, which seems a little on the nose. But creating art with awareness is not the same as executing it with purpose; there isn’t anything in the film that suggests its sexism serves any greater purpose than following the conventions of other sexist films.

Nocturnal Animals is set for limited release this November, and will probably be nominated for awards.


Katherine Murray is a Toronto-based writer who yells about movies, TV and video games on her blog.

12 Comments

  • Posted September 19, 2016 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    This is 1) really disappointing to hear and 2) makes me long for the movie that doesn’t exist, the one mentioned in the opening paragraph, the one that imitates the sexist narrative in order to criticize it.

  • Kirk
    Posted September 20, 2016 at 4:17 am | Permalink

    You jumped over the central premise of 2 women – Susan and her influential mother – perpetuate misogyny against one man. “Sensitive” makes him disposable, compared to a more “masculine” man.

    Neither Ford’s movie, nor the inner novel that “captures” Susan’s belief about Edward, is out to redress the inequalities in sexist cinema history. The mirror is held up to two people wielding the social power concentrated around misogyny: A man is denied by a woman to grow their family, because he’s “weak” not “strong”, when they DID have love. In this case, misogyny is perpetuated regardless of gender.

    No surprise a macho stereotype (and seriocomically dying), helps with seeking justice (which obliterates the man – so no winners!) It also allows him to express the emotional trauma she otherwise belittled and denied, based on gender ideals.

    There’s also little logic in giving up names to hostile strangers.

  • John Behan
    Posted November 8, 2016 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I’m glad I wasn’t alone in being utterly creeped out by the moral tone of this movie, which is knowing and deliberate and orchestrated. Ford’s characters only speak in cliché and exposition; nothing is said that substantively challenges the most cynical, conservative notions that are represented. Ford also moves so fast through Nussbaum’s checklist of objectification and so narrowly edges through the Bechdel test* that I too was waiting for the knowing, satirical shoe-drop that never came.

    But the worst part is, when the exposition-heavy dialogue isn’t mansplaining to the cipher that stands for a female lead, we are also shown another “reality” and a hugely effective piece of drama with believable dialogue in the “chase” scene and subsequent face-off, which spins into an increasingly grisly and decreasingly interesting revenge plot. The villain of this play-within-a-play is excellently acted and so despicable that no viewer could detach themselves and avoid an emotional response.To manipulate the audience so much in the service of such an uncharitable, cynical and misogynistic frame story is horrible.

    What are we to believe? That women are mortal models for men to hang their fantasies on like so many designer clothes? To be used and cast away before their beauty is used up? Does Ford want us to see all this compounded misogyny and want to shake it up, and if so, where is that contrapuntal voice in this film where women are only helpless and fatalistic?

    *There is a conversation between two women about a baby, and a catty meeting about sacking a fellow female, so not *all* the conversation is about the men, smh.

  • kobaltkween
    Posted November 15, 2016 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the warning. That was my take from the synopsis, which seemed to be “Beautiful woman shamed by many she left,” with the subtext of, “Because of course if he was even a little bit of an OK guy, he _deserved_ her, and how dare she not give herself to him since he was worthy.” The opening credits sound even more insulting to women.

    • sk8tfan
      Posted November 28, 2016 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

      My takeaway was that it took him 20 damn years to get off his rear end and write the novel; they’d have gone bankrupt and starved while waiting for him so she probably had the right idea about him to begin with. What gets me is that of course the successful career woman must be punished for her success.

  • Stella Weller
    Posted November 20, 2016 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this review. I saw the film a couple of weeks ago and found it very depressing. Reading your review has clarified and backed up what I also feel about the themes in this film. The main female character in this film, Susan, is completely one-dimentional, though Amy Adams does her best.

  • Lindsey Romain
    Posted November 21, 2016 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    Wow I had almost the EXACT opposite read on this movie.

    I saw the whole thing as a really harsh depiction of toxic masculinity. Tony is absolutely ridiculous in every possible way, and his strange pettiness, and inability to let go of what Susan sees as a fairly minor thing to the point that he devotes 20+ years of his life to writing a novel about his immature feelings, is laid pretty bare. The novel illustrates the stupid ways men fight each other and make themselves self-important. Tony and Andes dedicate their lives to seeking revenge on the man who raped and killed Tony’s wife and daughter, becoming totally undone in the process (Andes even makes it his literal dying wish to see Ray done in). In the end, it’s all for shit – everyone dies because men create unnecessary chaos when they let their egos get the best of them. To me, the novel wasn’t Tony’s way of making Susan feel bad, it was his way of working through his weakness as a man. His character wasn’t able to save his wife and daughter the same way Tony wasn’t able to put aside his own silly desire to be a famous author to salvage his marriage. The women characters were purposely and knowingly fridged because Tony’s quest to save them, to protect what he perceived to be his duties as a man, overshadowed who they were as people.

    I also never once got the sense that Susan wanted Tony back. She merely agreed to see him to tell him her thoughts on the novel as a means of closure. That she takes off her lipstick and dresses less fancy for their dinner symbolized, to me, that she understood his message loud and clear and was proud of him for finally growing up, and realized she could just be herself around this person she knew for so long and as such a young person. Him not showing up could mean a lot of things – at first I actually thought maybe he killed himself the same way his character does in the novel (he’s completed his life’s work and has nothing else to live for), but with some distance from the movie I see that maybe it means that he didn’t actually grow from this, that he’s still seeking petty revenge on the woman who hurt him, and that every time we think men have progressed and grown up, we’re reminded that they don’t so easily let go of that male self-entitlement. It was his one last dig at her, and it made him look like the shitty one in the situation, not her.

    I guess I can kind of see how you might read it as the film punishing Susan for getting an abortion and being so callous as to leave the love of her life for a safer route. But I didn’t really get that impression at all. Her practicality might not be her best virtue, but throughout the film we see her self-preservation juxtaposed with really awful men who live on the fly and look nasty in comparison: her cheating husband, her petulant ex-husband, the chaotic and horrible Ray.

    The naked women at the beginning also didn’t bother me because I saw them as an outward confrontation to the men the movie was about to undo. Men who would never admit that fat women are beautiful and sexy. The story is about them and their dangerous perspectives. It was like the movie saying right out the gate that if you’re threatened by this, you don’t deserve this world.

    • Vahid Avdic
      Posted December 10, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      Why should he have to put aside his “silly” desire to salvage a marriage? Your interpretation doesn’t ring true, and your desperation to make it fit makes you agree to something that isn’t fair. Why can’t a movie in which a woman is harsh to a feminine man still be considered feminist? Isn’t feminism about equality?

  • Posted December 20, 2016 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    What could possibly be the editorial purpose of a website named “bitchflix” other than to run down the new releases while asking, “Can we problematize it as misogynist?”.

    • Man Holefire
      Posted December 30, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Well. You read it. So, the other purpose is to provide reviews from different perspectives. You see, I could read a bunch of reviews by men and they would probably not often find misogyny. Narrow world view and all. Then, I read reviews by women and I think, “oh, yes. I can see that angle.” And that, Charlie Brown, is the true purpose of a website named “bitchflix”.

  • Man Holefire
    Posted December 30, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Yes!! A million times yes. It poses as a movie commenting on masculinity but uses women’s bodies as stylistic choices trying to knock me over the head with how meaningful it all is when really the take home menssage is just, “you can’t ever know how hard it is to be a sensitive man!!!” Take a martial arts class or something.

  • Angela Brisbane
    Posted January 2, 2017 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    I thought it was a nasty little movie which revelled in cruelty against woman for its own sake. There was no deeper message that I could see and certainly no originality. The Coen brothers did this sort of thing much better. The message seemed to be that women will always get their comeuppance, for no particular reason, and the men will win even when they lose. The denouement at the end was petty. The whole film says a lot about the writer, maybe more than he realises. Females will find the movie heavy-going and depressing. If you have a message to put out there, sometimes less is more. It was like watching a small boy throwing muck at a fence for 2 hours. We get that your mum was a bit of a slacker. It’s not anyone else’s fault. Misogynists must believe that if they have to suffer for their art so must all of us.