Laura Tansley takes on the visually stunning Nocturnal Animals, that has an unnerving message for its female viewers
Nocturnal Animals is sleek, stylised, and deftly negotiates several simultaneous and entwined narratives at once. Plus, performances from Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal do not disappoint. However, the movie concerns me deeply, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m willing to concede that my concerns might be unfounded, that my perception has been warped by the reality of that Trump win. However, Nocturnal Animals has left me with some residual angst, and an unnerving, and overwhelming, sense of misogyny.
Nocturnal Animals is about Susan (Amy Adams), a woman in a troubled marriage who receives a proof copy of her ex-husband-Edward’s manuscript (played by Jake Gyllenhaal). He’s dedicated the book to her, and he wants her to read it. So the film takes up three story lines: Susan’s present as her marriage falls apart (as she reads the manuscript); the dramatisation of her ex-husband’s novel; and the story of Susan and Edward’s failed relationship. These three narratives blend and seep in to each other in several ways, most starkly as Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and the protagonist of his novel, Tony, who is married to a beautiful redhead played by Isla Fisher, eerily similar in appearance to Amy Adams.
It turns out that Susan dumped Edward because she didn’t believe in his abilities as a writer, couldn’t support his dreams, wanted more from him. She ended the relationship in a way she describes as brutal: she had an affair with a Winklevoss (her current husband Hutton, played by Armie Hammer), and terminated a pregnancy because the baby was Edward’s. With this knowledge, it’s hard not to see Edward’s book as a revenge note, a crime thriller that begins with the harrowing abduction of the protagonist’s wife and daughter on a deserted west Texas highway, by a gang of violent petty criminals. This part of the film is horrific, and culminates in Tony being dumped; when the adductors come looking for him, he hides, later calling himself a coward for this action. Making his way back to civilisation, Tony finds a sheriff, and the pair begin a fruitless search. As they soon discover, Tony’s wife and daughter have been raped, murdered, and dumped.
Really then, isn’t this film about a man’s wounded masculinity and the revenge he reaps on women both physically and psychologically? Isn’t that not supremely fucked up? A man is so mad about his wife leaving him, decades later he writes an emasculation fantasy in which women are brutally violated as a sadistic form of punishment. He casts himself as the grieving hero, seeking a confrontation with his more masculine alter-ego, the perpetrators of this fictional crime. Instead of moving on, he dedicates the book to his ex-wife of twenty years ago.
During the abduction scene, I repeated to myself, “It’s not real. It’s not real”. Despite the abduction taking place in a work of fiction, written by Edward, it’s tautly harrowing and tense. But that doesn’t matter anymore, does it? I can’t reassure myself by remembering what’s real and what’s not, because in this reality, the one we occupy right now, it doesn’t matter. Real is not reassuring. Real is more dangerous than ever.
There are very recent examples of petulant teenagers responding to sexual rejection by going on rampages, explicitly to murder women. This insidious misogynistic trope is left to dangle in the face of audiences because Edward doesn’t appear in the present storyline to disavow it. Instead, his purported punishment casts a shadow over Susan, the life she chose, and the daughter she has with Hutton. A decision she made two decades prior is held against her, and there is no absolution, only torture. And by Edward’s pen, sexual violence and murder.
The film opens with slow-mo nudes wearing naught but majorette gloves and boots dancing in front of flags. Stars and stripes shimmer as the women twirl streamers, glitter falling on their rippling tits, bellies and butts. This turns out to be a video installation launched by Susan at her art gallery. The women (or models of the women, it’s not made clear) lie face down on plinths in a white space, as Adams looks disaffected, staring in to the distance. It turns out she’s not really enjoying her job, and at a dinner party later on, she describes this work as “trash”. This has the unfortunate effect of undermining whatever significance the viewer might have placed on these performances, so this startling opening of obese women gyrating becomes underlined as nothing but a foil. It is something surreal in all its strange sparkle that seems to be a comment on, I don’t know, the American Dream?
But these bodies are basically being used for nothing but surprise and aesthetic appeal. Except that they, like other people and objects, appear in both the Susan and novel story lines, a choice which is designed to conflate the line between reality and fiction. Ford has said these women are an emblem for the letting go of cultural restraints, and that their energy is empowering, except that they exist outside of these installations face down on a plinth where uninterested art critics discuss their symbolic value. Edward’s fiction posits a hateful alternate reality that is designed to shame and intimidate. And his story, which Ford places at the centre of a film, seems to be telling women, who are all essentially superficial (just like their mothers), stand by your man. Or else.
Images: ryagosling/Tumblr; YouTube
ABOUT THE WRITER: Laura Tansley’s creative and critical writing has been published in a variety of places including Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, The Island Review (with Jon Owen), Kenyon Review Online (with Micaela Maftei), New Writing Scotland, Butcher’s Dog, and NANO Fiction. C.J. Cregg is her TV inspiration, Jonathan Ames’ insecurity is her reality.