Fashion designer and film director Tom Ford conjured up an interesting amalgamation of several art forms in the 2016 film Nocturnal Animals. Going miles beyond its source novel, this adaptation incorporates the highly visual art forms of painting, sculpture, installation art, photography, costume design, makeup and even architecture to highlight the story’s underlying themes of morality and judgement.
The film’s main storyline follows Susan (Amy Adams), an art gallery owner who is in an unhappy marriage with her second husband. She receives the manuscript of a novel (named Nocturnal Animals) written and dedicated to her by her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). This novel forms the film’s second storyline – Susan’s visualization of Edward’s book – in which arrogant, reckless and downright evil psychopaths kidnap, rape and murder the wife and daughter of the protagonist Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) after a roadside mishap. To avenge these heinous crimes, Tony and detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) track down and kill two of the culprits – Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lou Bates (Karl Glusman). Unfortunately, after killing Ray, Tony too dies a senseless death as he shoots himself accidentally by falling on his own gun. As Susan reads through this novel, the audience is shown a third narrative, that of Susan’s happy-then-dramatic past with Edward. The story’s multi-narrative format could have been tough to realize on screen, but Ford’s abundant and smart use of different visual media easily transports his audience into the film’s dark, nocturnal world.
Since Susan is an art gallery owner, art plays a very important role in the film. Paintings, sculptures and video installations have been carefully selected (or created from scratch in some cases) to reflect the film’s ideas of right and wrong, morality and sin. For example, John Currin’s Nude in a Convex Mirror, 2015, can be seen in Susan’s office in a scene in which she is reminiscing about her distorted past with Edward, as if looking at her life in a convex rear-view mirror. Damien Hirst’s sculpture St. Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, 2007, showing a black calf pierced by several arrows, is magnificently displayed in another scene, serving as a reminder of the pain and evil that Susan is able to experience and relate to as she reads Edward’s novel. In yet another scene, a sinister and fearful aura is created as Susan gazes into Richard Misrach’s photograph Desert Fires 153 (Man with Rifle), 1984, which is of a man pointing his rifle at another man who is laughing at the camera. This photograph also eerily foreshadows a later scene in which Tony points his gun at Ray, who then laughs at him for being “weak” right before being shot.
In many other scenes, Ford uses or displays naked bodies as art, perhaps even as a fashion statement of sorts. The opening credits show videos of naked obese women dancing merrily as part of a video art installation displayed in Susan’s art gallery. The women are lively, carefree and confident in the videos being displayed in the gallery. However, outside the screen in the real, judgemental and morally corrupt world, the plaster casts of their naked bodies are shown lying lifeless on raised platforms in the gallery. It is explained in a later scene that this art installation was Susan’s take on America’s “junk culture”. These opening credits not only establish Susan’s judgemental nature and her obsession with physical beauty, but also force the viewers to think about their own biased perceptions and judgemental attitudes.
After the opening credits, nudity appears in quite a few other scenes too. In one of the most poignant scenes of the film, Bobby and Tony discover the dead bodies of Tony’s wife and daughter, laid naked next to each other on a sofa in the open woods in an ‘artistic’ embrace. This scene is immediately overlapped by another shot in which Susan and Edward’s daughter India is shown lying in bed with her lover in a similar embrace. In another scene, when Bobby and Tony ultimately find Ray, he is shown sitting naked on a commode that is, rather curiously, situated outside on the patio of his house in the woods. The scene is highly significant for multiple reasons. The commode, a sign of all things bad that need to be purged and flushed away (and somewhat reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture Fountain, in which a urinal moonlights as art), is shown almost as a throne on which Ray, an evil individual with no conscience or regrets, for whom “it’s fun to kill people”, sits proudly. The scene inadvertently (or perhaps intentionally) highlights Ray’s toned body, a stark contrast to the bodies the audience is shown in the opening credits. Here, the viewers are shown a physically ‘fit’ person – attractive even – who is purely evil. These opposing images effectively suggest that physical appearance is not the best scale to judge a person.
This idea is evoked through costume design and makeup throughout the film. For instance, Susan’s chic clothing is a reminder of how her fashionable exterior masks her true self and prevents people from judging her. She, with her high-end clothing, has been masquerading as a non-existent version of herself – as an art connoisseur when she herself thinks that her work is “junk”, or as a loving wife when she has obviously become distant from her cheating husband. Susan’s makeup similarly acts as a mask. While it is light and cheerful in the flashback timeline, it becomes heavier and almost morbid in the present-day timeline – her eyes are heavily laden with black mascara and her lips are painted in dark shades while her face is contrastingly painted with pale makeup. Ford uses this as an allegorical commentary on how Susan’s ‘morals’ have changed in the years since she left Edward. This is even more clear when Susan wipes off her dark red lipstick before going for her scheduled dinner with Edward towards the end of the movie – a hint that she wants to get back to her previous life.
The symbolism in Nocturnal Animals continues in Ford’s subtle use of architecture to convey the emotions of his characters. One great example is Susan’s house, which is designed with floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking tall trees. In one scene shot in the night, we see a pensive Susan standing against the backdrop of one of these tall glass windows. At this point in the story, Edward’s story has had a severe impact on her state of mind – she has become forgetful, her insomnia has grown worse, and she has even started hallucinating Ray. Matching her state of mind, the tall glass windows in this scene give Susan a certain vulnerability – as if she is standing exposed in the woods, much like a nocturnal animal.
Thus, with formidable expertise, Ford added extraordinary depth to a seemingly straightforward story by interweaving layer after layer of symbolism through many art forms. As the viewer keeps unravelling these layers, Nocturnal Animals manages to remain a fresh and meaningful film even after multiple watches.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.