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.