In the end, Nocturnal Animals barely feels like a film made by a human being. You could just dub it a “stylish exercise” and call it a day. But I just can’t shake the fact that Ford somehow wants it to be more. The movie feels glazed and remote, a surface with all the identifying fingerprints polished off. What would it look like if Ford had left them on?-Stephanie Zacharek, TIME
The somewhat enigmatic ending of the film annoyed some of the people around me at the press screening — and I confess I’ll probably need to sit with it for a while to fully understand what Ford was going for with it — but “Nocturnal Animals” packs a real punch and confirms that “A Single Man” was no fluke.-Alonso Duralde, THE WRAP
I included the first quote because it’s frustrating. And the second quote because I want this piece to help clarify the end of Nocturnal Animals.
A lot of viewers and critics have rightly pointed out the metaphor that is Edward Sheffield’s novel. The story of Tony Hastings represents how Edward felt about what happened between him and Susan (Amy Adams)—another man came and took Susan from him. Content aside, our main clue is that Jake Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and Tony.
In the film’s middle, Susan has flashbacks to her time with Edward, when they were in their 20s. During one flashback, she reads a draft of a story and tells Edward that he needs to not write about himself. Which could seem harsh but… Think about where he was and who he was at the time: a struggling writer in NYC. Given her criticism, he probably had been writing about a struggling writer in NYC. That can work, but it’s also…too easy. And has been done to death.
At this point, two or so decades later, Edward has managed to write about himself in a way that would, to anyone who didn’t know him, seem completely fictional. That is, to me, absolutely a sign of mastery—when you can make the real into the surreal and the surreal resonate with someone else’s reality.
Ostensibly, Edward’s using the story of Tony to not only express and exorcise the pain he felt at losing Susan but also fantasize about the revenge he would take on her husband/his replacement, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). The novel is an act of catharsis, as most art is.
With that said, let’s dive into that enigmatic final scene.
Susan has asked Edward to get dinner with her. Edward says some nice guy thing in the vein of, “Name the time and place and I’m there”. We see Susan get dressed up. She does her make-up. Then she arrives at the restaurant. This fancy, fancy place. She enters. The sever sits her at an empty table.
Has a drink.
We hear a hostess say, “This way, sir,” and Susan smiles, thinking it’s Edward, but the person goes to another table. Time passes. The tables clear. She drinks more. And Edward never shows up. THE END.
There are two meanings to take away from this ending. Let’s start with what might be the simpler of the two.
Edward’s novel was a classic revenge plot that the 90s and Mel Gibson would be proud of. You’ve probably seen a revenge movie before. The Crow, I Spit On Your Grave, Kill Bill, Payback, Braveheart, Apocalypto, Mad Max, Edge of Darkness, The Lion King, Taken. Essentially, in the first 20 minutes someone is killed or kidnapped or the main character gets attacked and left for dead or barely escapes a murder attempt. The main character ends up being really sad, then decides to get revenge. Most of the narrative deals with the machinations of revenge, usually ending with the main character winning and moving on, or winning then dying, or winning and reuniting with whoever was kidnapped.
In reality, most of us won’t, can’t, and don’t seek physical payback. If my girlfriend cheats on me with some jerk, I’m going to write a mean text message, delete her from Facebook, be sad, drink a lot of milkshakes, and that’s that. I may hate them, but I’m not going to slash either of their tires or steal his dog or even fight him. That’s why revenge stories can make for such great cinema or literature. We get to safely and vicariously experience someone else taking violent retribution against people so evil they deserve it. Those stories tap into not only the anger we’ve felt at some point in our life but also the powerlessness.
Nocturnal Animals actually juxtaposes the difference between revenge in fiction and revenge in reality. By having the novel-within-a-movie it makes Susan’s and Edward’s “reality” seem closer to our own, and Tony’s all the more distant. Tony’s story deals with this very emotional and heightened tale of terror, survival, and revenge. Where all we see with Susan is her at work, at a boring party, sitting at home, her at work again, a lot of baths, and then alone at a restaurant.
Edward’s character Tony can end up murdering the killer of his wife and daughter, since Tony is a work of fiction. But all Edward (who, in the movie, is “real” when compared to Tony) gets to do is write a book, send it to his ex, and then stand her up. Compare how one makes you feel to how the other makes you feel. For most of us, Tony’s form of vengeance is visceral and feels like justice. Where Edwards is kind of petty, especially when we know how awful Susan already feels about her life. It’s just another loss for Susan. Edward’s act is far less dramatic. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t satisfying.
If Nocturnal Animals‘s theme of revenge wasn’t evident enough in Edward’s novel, we have the scene where Susan’s at work and stops before a giant picture that says:
Cinema has always been a medium of symbolic meaning, and here that symbolism is pretty strong. It not only reinforces that this is a film about revenge but offers a suggestion for how we should look at the act. Not as a singular thing, but as something fractured and protracted.
It’s kind of fitting that the final “e” is alone. [Originally, the article didn’t have the picture. Instead, I had relied on my memory of the letter arrangement, thinking the E was alone at the end and presenting a visual recreation of the word, REV ENG E. Thanks to Joe L for e-mailing me a correction].
It may not seem all that climactic that Edward stood Susan up. But Susan is miserable. Her marriage sucks. We see she gets no joy from her job. She doesn’t sleep. Her daughter is off somewhere. It feels like she isn’t living in a house so much as a mausoleum. The one moment of joy we see her have is when she thought her and Hutton might go to the beach. Then Hutton shuts her down and leaves for NYC to spend time with some other woman. Because Susan’s life is so miserable, she ends up seeking refuge in Edward’s novel, because Edward’s novel is a connection to Edward, which is a connection to something outside of her current life. That’s why we get those flashbacks. She’s caught up in the nostalgia of her relationship with Edward, what had been, what could have been, and what wasn’t.
So when Edward agrees to meet Susan, that’s like…the first meaningful thing that’s happened for her in the movie. We can tell she’s hopeful. Through her flashbacks, we know she saw Edward as the nice guy, the sensitive soul. After she’s spent around two decades with Mr. Business Man, building this empty, debilitating life…Edward is such a promise of warmth, of humanity. And here she’s read this book that is so obviously about how much the loss of her crushed him. That means he must still love her, right?
So as she puts on her green dress, puts on the make up, prepares to go meet Edward, she must have such a sense of…hope. But beyond that, satisfaction. Early in the movie, she tells Hutton that Edward never re-married and that’s sad. We can tell she pities Edward. He loved her. She left him, broke him. In her mind she’s always had the power over Edward. She even inspired this great work of fiction, a book dedicated to her and her alone, even titled after the nickname she had because she could never fall asleep. She must think she’s going to do Edward a favor by having dinner with him.
Imagine the ego boost that must have been for her?
If, at that dinner, Edward had told her to run away with him…she might have.
Except Edward never shows up. And that crushes Susan, because it destroys the fantasy she had. The one where she still meant something to Edward. Where she still meant something to anyone. Without Edward she has no one. At least before he reached out to her, she could think to herself that, no matter how bad things were with Hutton, at least one person out there still desired her.
With that context, Edward not showing up is actually brutal. It’s not the physical act of vengeance most of us crave. It’s the much more diabolical mental and spiritual fatality, that “I’m going to take away every last bit of hope you have and leave you with absolutely nothing so that life has no meaning to you whatsoever. Fuck you.”
And that’s where we get into what’s probably the more complicated dynamic of the final scene.
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Through Edward’s arc, Nocturnal Animals gets at the role emotion plays in creating art and the role creating art plays in emotion.
When Edward was happy with his life, his writing was, according to Susan’s judgment, mediocre. And it seems from the success she eventually had in the world of art that she had a strong eye. After Susan destroyed Edward’s heart, he used that pain, transmuting the very common and mundane acts of infidelity and divorce that happened in NYC into a thrilling revenge narrative set in West Texas. That’s the inspiring role emotion plays in creating art.
After writing the novel, Edward sends it to Susan, the first communication they’ve had in years. He felt empowered to do that. He felt so empowered that he then stood Susan up. Where Susan saw the book as a statement of how much Edward still cared about her, the novel was actually a sign that Edward had finally come to terms with what had happened between them. All those emotions inside of him became words on a page. That’s the cathartic role creating art plays in emotion.
Creating art draws from the abstract and ethereal and complicated sea of emotion inside of us and pours that emotion into a form outside of us. That’s one of the powers of art, to help us not only process our emotions but to get rid of them. It’s like when you finally take the time to do the dishes that have been piling up, to take out the garbage, wash those clothes, and throw out some of the things you know you haven’t needed or wanted for years. After doing those things, the sense of relief is massive. You feel a weight is off your shoulders and your home looks better and feels better to exist in.
Except Susan doesn’t have that. Multiple times, Susan says that she isn’t creative, that she can’t create. That’s why she switched from being an art major to art history. That’s why she manages a gallery and helps other artists. She can’t express her feelings. All of her fear, her pain, her stress, etc., it all stays inside of her. When it became too much with Edward, she bolted for Hutton. And even though she has all this money, all this success, she’s miserable. She has no means of catharsis. For anything she feels. That’s the equivalent of never cleaning the dishes, of never taking the trash out, and never washing clothes. What would that home look like?
This is why she can’t sleep, why she is a nocturnal animal. There’s too much on her mind.
So where Edward could work through his emotions and find, eventually, closure…that probably won’t happen for Susan. In all likelihood, things will not improve for her. Which makes Nocturnal Animals an existential revenge film. Edward doesn’t physically hurt Susan. He just destroys any hope she had for her still finding happiness.
Alonso was right to say Nocturnal Animals “packs a punch”. It’s as much a story of triumph as it is one of annihilation of the spiritual realm, the realm of heart and soul and psyche. That does take time to process, to unpack and appreciate. And that’s why the first quote frustrated me so much. There’s nothing glazed or remote or barely human about Nocturnal Animals. It’s dealing with the core of what humanizes and dehumanizes us, of the forces that erode and those which heal.
Update: The Concept of Forgiveness
I talked with my friend and fellow film fanatic, Jo Ro, and she made a great point about Susan, one that Vela Roland and Shakira Wade also discussed in the comments (see the bottom of the page). I had completely missed the concept of forgiveness and closure in Nocturnal Animals.
It’s funny because there’s an interview Tom Ford did where he said that he thought the film’s ending signified change and hope for Susan. At the time, I had laughed because it seemed ridiculous. I had already written this article about how tragic the end was. I had legitimately thought, “If that’s what Ford was going for, I don’t think he hit his mark.” But then talks with Jo and comments like Vela’s and Shakira’s really echoed what Ford had said.
I had initially viewed Susan reminiscing about the rise and fall of her relationship with Edward as a means of romanticizing what they had in order to being transitioning from her dead life with Hutton to a rekindled love with Edward. I saw it as an act of an unhappy person who operated like a hermit crab, moving from one shell to another. That’s why the end of the movie would be so tragic—Susan now had no where to go. Hutton didn’t want her. And the first love she thought could recapture…also a no go.
But the reminiscing isn’t just romanticizing the past, it’s understanding the pain you caused someone and feeling guilty about that pain. In that context, Susan isn’t reaching out to Edward for validation or hope for a rekindled romance—all she wants is to alleviate the guilt. She doesn’t want to feel responsible for having broken him or ruined him. So her e-mails aren’t necessarily romantic gestures. They would be an olive branch. Same with the dinner. It’s not about her wooing Edward, it’s about apologizing, seeing he’s okay, and finding closure. The same kind of closure we see Tony trying to gain in Edward’s novel.
Edward not showing up becomes a bittersweet victory for Susan. On the one hand, it’s brutal because she’s been stood up. On the other hand, it’s Edward’s first relatively cruel act to Susan. He had the confidence and the backbone to stand her up. He wasn’t weak. As petty of an action as that is, it’s a strong action for Edward to take and something that Edward 20 years ago would have never done. Add this in with him having written a novel Susan found impressive…and it seems like Edward has moved on to a new chapter. One where he doesn’t need her. The assumption here is that Susan can forgive herself, because even though she hurt Edward…she didn’t destroy him. He’s alive. He’s writing. He’s confident enough to stand her up. That’s enough for Susan to find closure in what happened between them. No longer worried about her past, Susan has the potential to focus on improving her present.
I think most of us can relate to that on some level. Forgiveness and closure, together, can be great. But getting forgiveness doesn’t always mean you get closure, and getting closure doesn’t always mean getting forgiveness.
Update 2: Romantic Interest?
After my first update, Barkley Obar commented about Susan removing her wedding ring and still dressing up for her dinner with Edward. Barkley saw these as signs of romantic interest, not just in forgiveness. I agree with that.
In the first Update, I had meant to show there’s an argument to be made for reading the end as Susan dealing with forgiveness and guilt. Instead, it seems more like I changed my stance entirely. Not the case. I think the truth is somewhere between my initial woo-and-doom scenario and the guilt-forgiveness situation.
I think if Edward had shown up and been his charming self, told Susan he still loves her, asked her to leave with him—she would have. I think she did have expectations that something could happen between them. But reality dashed that hope. Edward is done with her. His “you can’t get it back again” line proved prophetic. Yes, Susan would be saddened by this and hurt by this, however I no longer see her as totally doomed. I think she does have a better sense of closure, and while Edward hasn’t forgiven her, the novel puts to rest what had transpired between them. I think she probably does feel a weight off her shoulders. With her wedding ring removed, we could extrapolate she’ll leave Hutton and draw on some inner strength she’s denied herself because of her guilt? Or she could still be doomed. I’m okay with the vagueness because I think that’s part of interacting with art—we supply some of the meaning. Depending on your own life, you could read the end as hopeful. You could read the end as tragic. You could think Edward killed himself and Susan will do the same. The important thing at this point isn’t the right answer. It’s your answer. And the fact that the end could mean something new and important to you every year of your life. That’s pretty cool.