Susan Morrow ponders the relationship she walked out of — leaving her ex-husband Edward Sheffield — while reading his newly completed manuscript. The dissatisfaction with her life weighs heavy. Although outwardly successful her life is fuelled by selfishness, and materialism, and it conceals both impending financial bankruptcy and her husband’s infidelity.
The story switches between her real life, and the story told in Edward’s novel. In the ‘now’, Susan lives in a luxurious mansion, surrounded by seductive materialism, where everything looks beautiful and her work as a contemporary artist appears a success. Edward is notable by his absence, only present in her memories and through the manuscript that he’s sent her.
Edward’s novel is the story of a man whose wife and daughter are raped and murdered, and his path to recovery. It’s a metaphor for the loss of Edward’s relationship with Susan — Edward appears as the same person in the novel and Susan’s memories. While reading the novel she appreciates his skill as a storyteller and his qualities as a man, qualities she once dismissed: dropping him and his academic / writer lifestyle in favour of her current husband’s materialist and status-focused world.
His novel is set in the desert; the highway that stretches through it is symbolic of the writer’s journey, as he passes through his own painful journey, through relationship hell. Edward’s novel brings us into contact with country ‘red necks’, the barbarian ‘other’ who exist in an amoral world, echoing Susan’s amoral coldness.
Susan’s reality and Edward’s novel unfold as two parallel stories that never merge. The film makes use of deliberately unresolved elements. On the face of it, this is a story about an unhappy woman who reads a manuscript written by her ex-husband. But as is the case with art films there are few answers. It’s clearly a story within a story: a story about story-making — and about the act of reading or watching stories. We are watching a fictional film called Nocturnal Animals that dramatizes a fictional novel, written by a character in this film (that is also called ‘Nocturnal Animals’). The drab reality of Susan’s life is beautifully set within the desirable interior spaces of her mansion, along with her immaculate wardrobe, but the ‘glitz’ is fool’s gold. Although emphasised, it is not ‘the’ story, because it is not a ‘story’. The real story here is the work of fiction written by Edward. His fictional creation is more compelling than her real life. And while we are watching this film, this fictional world is more compelling that our life.
Nocturnal Animals is an art film that breaks storytelling rules. It lacks a strong ‘hero’, even the central character in Edward’s novel is knowingly weak and makes a point of this admitting this. His weakness makes it difficult to empathise with him, and the uncomfortable viewing of his family’s ordeal feels gratuitous in the way it lingers on his powerlessness. Susan is equally hard to like, parading around in her materialist paradise, feeling unloved by her cheating husband. She consciously wanted a man who would be an ‘achiever’, as she saw it, but her decision has taken her to an unsatisfactory place. Of all the terrible injustices in the world this one seems hard to get heated up for.
The film feels like two stories that have been stitched together and presented to the audience inside an ‘art film’ wrapper, which like Susan’s house, and her art, is beautifully crafted, but weirdly empty.