Content warning: rape.
It was a dark and stormy night a few days after the US General Election and I felt the weight of the result crush me into my seat as I watched Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals.
I feel as if I rarely raise my voice. I let things slide. I’m the princess of passive aggressive behaviour. But my unfortunate timing that week in November simultaneously awoke a rage and an almost overwhelming sense of hopelessness that I hadn’t experienced before or since.
It’s not the film’s fault (though it has many of those, stick around) that for me it has become intrinsically connected to the Trump presidency and its wider implications. But every time I come across it I am implicitly reminded that women’s feelings and trauma don’t matter.
I’m pretty confident that I would still loathe this film if I’d seen it in those sunnier pre-Trump days. I would still loathe this film if I was tripping over think pieces on why it’s so repulsive. But in that cinema I felt violently forced to confront violent misogyny. Grab ‘em by the pussy, you can do anything.
Why am I writing this now when I saw this film in November? I mean, I can procrastinate with the best of them but this really is ridiculous. I don’t know. I suppose it’s a testament to how nasty this film is and how intense my response was that it’s been sitting with me for six months and I feel the need to exorcise it. It’s the only exorcise I’m likely to do! (here all week).
(I’ve written about the film’s narrative below as well as I can remember as I would rather eat my own hand than put myself through it again, even in the name of Research).
Nocturnal Animals follows Susan (Amy Adams), a supremely wealthy art gallery owner. Out of the blue Susan receives the manuscript of a novel by her estranged ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The novel, dedicated to her, comes to life. Tony (Jake G again), his wife (knowingly played by Amy doppelgänger Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) are run off the road by a gang of frightening backwoods types straight out of a slasher flick. After an excruciatingly drawn out scene where they beg for their lives wife and daughter are eventually dragged away, raped and murdered. Tony later discovers their naked bodies (artfully and erotically posed of course, because who’d want to look at an unfuckable female corpse?). He subsequently embarks on a revenge mission.
Back in reality, we discover that Susan harbours guilt for betraying her ex-husband Edward in some unknown way: “I did something horrible to him, something unforgivable”. It’s obvious now that Edward is enacting his revenge against his ex-wife via a novel in which her counterpart is raped and murdered. Her “unforgivable” betrayal is symbolised by the unforgivable acts of the rapist. Susan even stands in front of a bloody massive canvas with the word “revenge” printed on it in case you weren’t getting the message. So far, so horrifying. I was deeply uncomfortable at this point but here’s what really got me.
We flash back to Susan and Edward as a couple. He’s a romantic writer, she’s essentially pragmatic but ignores her high society mother’s warnings about his lack of ambition and marries him anyway. His writing career is unsuccessful, they argue, she encourages him to get back into teaching, he’s outraged by her lack of faith in him. Much mangst. She’s unhappy too, and eventually leaves him for Armie Hammer. He’s heartbroken. To be fair, perhaps a little of the mangst is justifiable. Susan was a bit cruel and dismissive of Edward’s writing, sure, and cheating is obviously an awful betrayal of trust. But I was still waiting for what could possibly warrant writing a novel about the ultimate violation of your former partner. And guess what? Nothing warrants that and certainly not the Big Reveal: we finally discover that Susan aborted Edward’s child after they separated. This plot point does not originate from the novel by Austin Wright that the film is based on.
They stare at each other across a car park. He’s aghast, she cries.
“I did something horrible to him, something unforgivable”.
This was the moment I felt this burning, nauseous rage rise up. I said “Oh, my god” out loud in disbelief. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I never talk in the cinema. Ever. This is big. I’m gonna have to go home, I thought. Fuck this. They’ve made it all about him. But I stayed, against my better judgement. I saw it through to the bitter end. And bitter it was. Susan finishes the novel and arranges to meet Edward for dinner, seemingly hoping they can reconcile. She arrives at the restaurant and waits. And waits. And waits. He doesn’t turn up. She’s alone. He’s had the last laugh. The film ends.
I sat there feeling so angry, so upset and so tired. I had just watched a woman be emotionally and physically torn apart over two hours. And it wasn’t even her story. It was Jake G’s story. And I stormed out and angrily went round the supermarket and stomped home and ranted.
Critics praised this film endlessly. Wait, scratch that, almost exclusively male critics praised it. I did find this fantastically icy column by Victoria Coren Mitchell rightfully obliterating the film’s eroticism of rape and murder. She nails it with her final line: “Never mind your shifting film realities; in the real reality, this is a world where women are raped and murdered all the time. It isn’t beautiful, nor should it be made so”.
I found watching this film to be a genuinely crushing experience. Rape (and child rape), was used as a metaphor for damage done to a man’s ego. A metaphor used to punish a woman for making a choice about her body and her life. No matter how callous Susan might have been, she did not deserve such horrific treatment, and connecting rape with the notion of an earned punishment is extremely harmful.
Tom Ford suggests that at the end of the film Edward might have stood Susan up either because he realised he still loved her and couldn’t face her, or because once she’d inspired him to write his masterpiece he had moved on. Firstly, masterpiece? Lol, ok. Secondly, you don’t write about the rape of someone you love. And ultimately, neither of these ideas presents Edward as villainous. Vengeful and cruel, but essentially sympathetic. Yeah, bye.
This film reminded me of where women are in reality. “Nobody gets away with what you did”, says Tony. But the Trump victory communicated clearly that women’s feelings don’t matter (and that was clearly true to the women who voted for Trump as well), and that abusers remain unpunished.