We might call Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals divisive, except I'm unsure who exactly it has successfully divided; one half of film Twitter from the other, I suppose. The film is intentionally noxious, centered as it is around a vulgar potboiler about West Texan revenge. It's also a story about a man taking a more indirect, "artistic" revenge on an ex-partner for her having dared to have an abortion. In structure, tone, and outcome, Nocturnal Animals is very much a case of men waving their dicks in women's faces, just because they can.
This places the film in an unofficial sub-genre: the "intentionally or not" films. I like these. (Die Hard 4 is, "unintentionally or not," a hell of a movie about how emasculated America felt in the years following 9/11.) In the case of Nocturnal Animals, it's "intentionally or not, this movie is a working model for how movies, and the movie industry, view men and women differently." Nocturnal Animals is nauseatingly true to a world where men are artists, and women are fodder.
The film is composed of several interlocking "realities:"
The real world - introduced at the start of the film, we meet art gallery owner Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). She is (unhappily) married to Armie Hammer, who is cheating on her. Her previous husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a writer who has sent her a draft of his novel. The novel is called Nocturnal Animals.
The novel world - Susan reads, and envisions, the events of the novel. We might note that she is pulling details from the real world (to which we continually return) to flesh out certain faces in the novel world. In the novel world, Jake Gyllenhaal is cast as Tony, a man who, along with his family, is attacked on the highway one night. We might interpret this to mean that Susan is filling the real-world Edward into her mental picture of the lead role in his novel. She does not, however, cast herself as Edward's wife in the novel world; Amy Adams somewhat-lookalike Isla Fisher takes this role instead.
The past (real) world - While reading the novel, Susan also recalls moments from her defunct relationship with Edward. Here we learn that they met in college, fell in love, and were both (at some point) interested in becoming artists - though Edward bluntly pushed forward with his writing, while Susan deferred to art curation rather than art creation.
On one level, Nocturnal Animals is a diagram of how creators might use their creative work to address, articulate, and exorcise their experiences in the real world. We learn that Susan aborted a child before ending her marriage to Edward, and that Edward only found about this after the fact.
Susan (and the audience) reads the content of Edward's novel as parallel. In the novel, Edward's wife and daughter are kidnapped right in front of him during the roadside incident. They are later found raped and murdered. Sure, this could be the processing of trauma. This is also where I begin to have serious concerns about how Nocturnal Animals, the film, is doing its business.
The implication is obviously that Edward is developing his own emotional catharsis for the dissolution of his marriage and the "loss" of an unborn child with Susan. And because Nocturnal Animals is a film made and controlled by men, naturally, Edward is doing this by leaning on the oldest and most miserable trope in male-dominated cinema (and fiction in general): violence against women.
Within the framework of Edward's novel, he is positioning himself as a "beta male" who did not take appropriately aggressive action to prevent the taking of "his" women. Within the real world framework beyond, we as an audience get to watch Susan react to her ex-husband's positioning of her as a surrogate receptor of a gang rape, witness to her own daughter's similar assault, and ultimately, a murder victim.
The unspoken, but very loud, subtext from Edward: this is what I think about when I think about you.
Rather than being repelled, Susan is drawn further into the story. She assesses her own feelings of guilt about the way she treated Edward, with little (if any) indication that she might have been, say, within her rights not to keep a child in a loveless marriage just because it would have made her husband happy.
Instead, Susan enters into a subtly abusive non-relationship with Edward in the present day, continuing to devour his creative work while admitting to others that she may have made a mistake (her second, equally unhappy marriage is perhaps a factor here). She dials Edward up for dinner and drinks while he is in Los Angeles, playing perfectly into what we must presume was the silly endgame of his entire silly scheme: he stands her up, using his novel as the ultimate mic drop on the women who "did him wrong" some years prior.
As such, Nocturnal Animals classifies its own menagerie thusly:
Men - are fathers, cops, rapists, murderers, but most importantly artists, gifted with the ability to interpolate their own suffering into something compelling, even if it abuses others in the process. Within the novel framework, even Michael Shannon's character - a cop who learns he has terminal cancer - is able to use that trauma as a means to an end (in his case, bringing gunslinger justice to the murderers, without worrying about long-term consequences).
Women, on the other hand - are mothers, victims, (unborn baby) murderers, and certainly not artists, having sold out before the story even begins, preferring instead to support the artistic works of others. When their usefulness expires, they are (in the novel) brutalized so that yet another white man can learn yet another white lesson about his masculinity, or (out here in the real world) left behind nursing their third scotch - past their prime and their usefulness.
Nocturnal Animals is clever enough with its structure that it nearly manages to conceal just how ugly its basic concept is. This is a crude story about awful men being awful, driven by values so conservative that they might have come from the 1940s. And I can't help thinking it lays out rather perfectly where the men in charge of making movies would love women to remain: neutered consumers, consuming stories of their own violation.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.