The West Texas night is warm and starless as Tony Hastings drives down a lonely highway, dust and scrub flashing in his brights. His wife sits beside him, gently holding his hand. His daughter, India, sleeps in the back seat, bored by her bar-less phone.
His car comes up behind two others creeping along side by side. He honks, and one reluctantly makes way. Then speeds up. Then clips Tony's bumper. Then sideswipes the car, passengers hollering, pushing Tony's restored Mercedes off the road. A man gets out of the attacking car, knocks on Tony's window.
Susan turns the page.
It's a balmy night in Los Angeles. Susan knows them all too well. She's never slept particularly soundly, often taking pills to sleep at all. Her husband, Hutton, is gone on business, as he often is. She's sleeping alone in their stark, concrete mansion, as she often does. There's nothing new this night, nothing at all.
Except the book.
Edward, Susan's first husband, wrote it. He sent the proof to her, telling her he wanted her to be the first person to read it. They've not spoken for 19 years, but now he reaches out. Finally, he said, he was writing from the heart … thanks to her.
The book is called Nocturnal Animals. "To Susan," the dedication page reads. And Susan remembers …
… growing up with Edward in Texas. How she was his first crush, how he was hers. How they rediscovered each other by chance in New York City one night. How they fell in love, how they married against Susan's parents' wishes.
"The things you love about him now, you'll hate in a couple of years," Susan's mother warned. She was right.
Except that now as she reads, Susan remembers how wonderful it all was. She looks at her own life and wonders how she came to this place, to become everything she hated, everything she once rejected.
Is it possible that Edward misses her, too? Could it be that she's being given a second chance? Is it possible that in the midst of this violent, wrenching thriller he's written, Edward is longing for her again?
That's what Edward used to call her. I wonder why he titled the book that? Susan wonders.
But the night's over. The harsh California sun rises over the city, exposing the shimmering metropolis for what it is: a jungle of hard glass and concrete, white-hot ambition and cool, clinical betrayal. Susan closes the book, paints her lips blood red and walks out to face the day.
[Note: Spoilers are contained in the following sections.]
The Edward we meet in Susan's past is a good man. Everyone would say so. When Susan complains about her parents as "religious, sexist, racist Republicans," Edward recalls how much he liked them both—how they helped him through a family crisis, and how kind his mother was to him. He sees the best in people. And when he and Susan teeter on the edge of divorce, Edward pleads with her to work it out, not to leave him.
Edward admits that no writer writes about anything but himself, and so it is with Nocturnal Animals. Tony, his alter ego in the book, is also a good man—a conscientious husband, a devoted father. But when he's confronted by a trio of roughnecks in the wilds of West Texas, he discovers that his inherent goodness isn't enough to protect him and his family. He eventually crosses path with Bobby Andes, a police lieutenant who tirelessly works to bring to justice the thugs who attacked Tony and his family. And while his methods often lack the justice he and Tony seek, his relentless pursuit is nonetheless admirable.
While reading Nocturnal Animals, Susan takes a hard look at her own life. She doesn't much like what she's become, and we see some softness creep in around her hard edges. When her board considers firing someone, Susan argues that the woman should stay; "Sometimes it's a good idea not to change things quite so much," she says. And when a bird accidentally kills itself after flying into one of Susan's windows, she stares at the feathered corpse with sadness and pity.
Susan tells someone that she's Catholic, and she frets that something she's done goes against the faith she was raised with. She wears a cross around her neck.
Characters in Edward's book also wear crosses, and Tony drives by a rural church—a landmark and, perhaps, a cruel promise of salvation that never comes.
Tony's attackers kill his wife and teenage daughter. When the police find them, a cross glints around the wife's neck, the bottom portion of which seems bent—her faith and hope broken, it would suggest. Tony wears a cross around his neck as well, which he clutches during a critical moment.
Susan is a curator at a trendy Los Angeles gallery, and Nocturnal Animals begins at the opening of one of her exhibits: Videos of obese, naked women wearing band hats play on the gallery walls (we see full-frontal nudity) while their actual nude bodies lay on platforms in the exhibit, as if they were sleeping or dead. (The videos take up what seems like several minutes of screen time during the opening credits.)
Two women are discovered dead, in the nude. They're positioned to face each other lying on a couch; we see the bare backside of one corpse, which in turn hides most of the other. Shortly thereafter, we see two other nude bodies lying in much the same position. But both are very much alive, and one is a man. Again, we see the rear of the woman. (We presume the couple is unmarried but obviously intimate.) Tony sits in a hotel bathroom, naked (where we see him from the side). Another unclothed man sits on an outdoor toilet, his legs barely concealing his privates.
Susan is shown both in a bathtub and showering, though nothing more than shadowed cleavage is glimpsed. Later, she goes to a dinner in a low-cut dress. She calls her out-of-town husband, who walks to a hotel room with another woman hanging off his arm. Susan eventually realizes that her husband is having an affair. In a flashback, we see Susan ask Edward back to her place, where she jokingly says that in Texas, debutants like her are always "sluts."
Susan and Edward recount their mutual crush as teens. Susan says that her brother and his best friend, Cooper, also had a crush on Edward. Susan would've suspected that the two of them were "sleeping together" if Edward's feelings for her hadn't been so obvious. Edward never knew of his best friend's sexual leanings, and frets over whether he ever hurt Cooper accidentally. Susan tells Edward that his parents have cut ties with Cooper because of his sexual preferences.
Susan and her second husband go to a party hosted by a woman whose husband is gay. The woman says that they're best friends, and that "that lasts longer than lust." We hear a dinner guest talk suggestively about massaging female body parts to ease childbirth.
In Edward's book, Tony's attackers ask derisively whether he has a "vagina" and, when his nose bleeds, whether he has tampon to stop the bleeding. They begin to push and threaten his wife and daughter, India. One lifts India up and presses her against a car. She runs off into the Texas desert, while her attacker rubs his groin suggestively.
Two of the attackers take off in Tony's car with his wife and daughter, leaving Tony and another to follow in the other vehicle—ostensibly to go to a town to report an accident. India pounds against the back window. She and Tony's wife are later discovered dead. Bobby Andes tells Tony that the killers murdered his wife with a hammer or baseball bat—just one or two blows to the head. His daughter suffered more, Tony's told. She was suffocated and endured a broken arm during the attack. Both were raped. Tony later dreams of India's last moments—a blurry storm of skin and screams and struggle.
Three people are shot and killed. Another man apparently dies offscreen during a robbery attempt. Someone gets hit with a metal bar, leaving the man's face bloodied and apparently blinded. Tony struggles with another assailant and is hit in the face—a blow that perhaps breaks his nose. (It certainly leaves it bloodied.) Another guy gets socked in the face. People are threatened with guns.
We learn that Susan, after meeting Hutton, aborted her and Edward's child. "I'll live to regret this," she foresees.
Crude or Profane Language
About 50 f-words and at least 15 s-words. God's name is misused nearly 20 times, about half of those with the word "d--n." Jesus' name is abused four times. We also hear "a--," "b--ch," "b--tard," "h---," "p---y" and "p-ss." We see a crude hand gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Bobby smokes regularly, even when he learns that he's dying of lung cancer. "What's the point in quitting now?" he asks Tony. "I'll be dead in the year." (Other characters smoke, too.)
Bobby and Tony pick up one of the people they suspect assaulted Tony and his family at a bar, knowing that the man will likely be drunk when they find him. Characters drink wine, beer and other alcoholic beverages.
Susan takes what appears to be a sleeping pill. A friend asks to refer her to her "psychopharmacologist," a dig at a superficial culture that finds happiness partly through drugs.
Other Negative Elements
Bobby vomits twice offscreen. Someone uses a toilet installed on his front porch, wiping his rear when visitors come. He looks at the used toilet paper (which we see too) before letting it drop in the commode.
Susan wonders about that title, and so must we. All the characters we meet become creatures of the night, wrapping themselves in darkness to hide their terrible sins. It's interesting how many times we see them turn away from the light: After the gallery show, Susan shields her eyes when her car's headlights glint off her home's solid, steel gate. Tony, his wife and India squint against bright headlight beams, too. They shy away from a flashlight that their assailants brandish. One character seems to be literally blind when the sun rises.
"For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed," we read in John 3:20.
Nocturnal Animals is a devastating movie about sin and retribution. It's as searing as a thunderbolt, as poisonous as the strike of a snake. It's an Old Testament hammer without the grace or, perhaps, even the justice of God. Vengeance is the rule, and that vengeance, like the dark sins that preceded it, is meted out at night.
Nocturnal Animals invites us to become voyeuristic viewers of the darkness it portrays, passive participants sitting in the dark of the theater ourselves, watching secret sins unfurl before our horrified, unblinking eyes.
The things we witness deserve the dark. Perhaps we feel more comfortable watching them there, too.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Amy Adams as Susan Morrow; Jake Gyllenhaal as Tony Hastings/Edward Sheffield; Michael Shannon as Bobby Andes; Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Ray Marcus; Isla Fisher as Laura Hastings; Ellie Bamber as India Hastings; Armie Hammer as Hutton Morrow
Tom Ford ( A Single Man)
December 9, 2016
February 21, 2017