‘Nocturnal Animals,’ Family and Why I Woke Up With It on My Mind


Nocturnal Animals poster | c/o Focus Films


How monstrous would someone have to be to you before you too became a monster?

I ask because I just saw Nocturnal Animals, the Tom Ford-directed thriller (I’m legit amazed that the world-renowned clothing designer makes movies this well, too). This week it was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay Golden Globe awards.

In it, ex-husband Edward (and fledgling writer) and wife Susan (a realist) reconnect when he sends her an early version of his new book, Nocturnal Animals. The novel’s main character Tony looks to get revenge on a trio of wild Texans after they harass his family, and that’s a huge undersell for the sake of you all who’ve yet to see it yet.

While focused on the story within the story, we also have flashbacks of how the exes’ love first grew, then fizzled. There’s a synergy between both narratives. Edward and Tony are both played by Jake Gyllenhaal. And when Tony says lines like “Nobody gets away with what you did,” as he does to one of those nutbag criminals towards the end of the film, it can easily be spun and applied to Susan and how she broke up her marriage to Edward. Back to those bad guys, though.

Again, I’m going to keep away from spoilers, but they’re looney bin psycho, with zero remorse for their wrongs. And from the time they’re introduced, Animals becomes a tension-packed movie. They enter Tony’s life by running him, his wife and mouthy daughter off a desolate dirt road, making it clear that, at the very least, a carjacking will occur—if not the absolute worst.

While watching the movie on our couch (getting screeners during awards season is one of the perks of dating a Hollywood writer and Writers Guild member), my fiancee and I traded remarks about how icky the confrontations made us feel. It’s super fun to get those feelings from fiction. At one point she even got squeamish, similar to how Michael Jackson’s girlfriend in Thriller was before she left Mike alone in the theater watching that horror movie. She made it through, though.

At several moments in the movie, Tony had opportunities to fight, shoot, or kill his adversaries, but didn’t. And it wasn’t because of “I’m taking the high road”/“God will handle them”/“Killing is wrong.” reasoning. He couldn’t do it because he was scared. His own fear haunts and hurts him throughout Animals. And he won’t have any semblance of peace until he conquers it.

There’s a particularly gripping part of the movie when he breaks down, crying while wondering aloud about why he’s so weak, contemplating what he should have done when the devils stared him down. By the way, Gyllenhaal’s performance was incredible, as is Michael Shannon’s in his supporting role (I hope he nabs an Oscar nom’ for this after missing out on a Globe look).

When I woke up the following morning, I sat in bed and stared at the ceiling for a bit, wondering who I’d become if my life took a drastic turn one night and I was in Tony’s shoes. How would I react if someone close to me was hurt by some kook? Would I become Batman or cower in fear? Would I hold a load of hurt inside only for it to boil over and blast off at random? If the time came to face that one person, who would I be?

I’m pretty confident that I’m not to be trifled with on that level, that whoever crosses me to the degree that Tony suffers through would deeply regret doing so because holy intervention is the only way I could be peeled off being on their ass. My family members being harmed would probably take me far past turn the other cheek territory. That mindset is more-so reserved for life’s trivialities—an insult here, an argument with no resolution there. I can be “the better man” then. However, messing with my family means it’s time to get uncivilized.

That could all just be tough talk, though. How can you really ever be sure? I have no reference point, except that time when an older bully took my little sister’s backpack and I snatched it back in front of all the kids and parents at our bus stop one elementary school afternoon ages ago. This ain’t that.

Nocturnal Animals is a beautiful watch, with stellar cinematography. There’s a load of great shots, whether they’re with Tony in the desert or in Susan’s chic modern Los Angeles home. The only scene I didn’t like visually is one restaurant conversation where the camera cuts to each person and never gives us a two shot. Even then, I’m assuming Ford chose that for the uneasiness it caused. If so, kudos. It very much so made me feel uneasy as fuck.

As did the movie overall. I love when movies do that to me. I can’t remember the last movie that made me wake up the next day and wonder if I could do Batman things or if revenge is something I could ever crave in ways I’ve only read about in comic books.

Could you?

Go see it Nocturnal Animals. Then let’s talk about it.

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