Do you ever forget how to breathe? Most days it’s easy; you breathe in and you breathe out, and you repeat that same mundane act, every day, nonstop. What about those days that breathing ceases to be a natural occurrence? What about that day that someone left, dead or alive, or that day that you panicked and walked away? That day that you were vulnerable in some way or another, and you felt you were the center of attention all alone.
After the opening credits of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals come to an end, there’s only one thing we can hear: Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) taking deep breaths as the hours pass during an opening night at her gallery. It’s evident that Susan is struggling with something. Inside the gallery’s artificial white world, she can no longer find meaning in life. Everything is ‘junk’ and her acquaintances revel in it as if it were something profound. With everyone else gone, Susan sits beside the art she displayed. The visual message is clear: Susan feels as dead as the woman behind her.
As if it were perfectly timed, Edward Sheffield’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) manuscript arrives to awaken her from a slumber; an awakening orchestrated by Edward to direct Susan in a specific emotional state so as to execute his revenge plot. It should be noted here that Susan reading his novel is the most vital part of his plan; if she doesn’t experience his narrative, every other part will be rendered pointless. Hence, Edward purposefully leaves breadcrumbs for Susan throughout his novel so as to trigger specific memories that will lead her into a specific emotional space. This will allow him to manipulate her into believing that he still loves her; only then will he be able to crash her in the end.
Edward’s first precautions work as bait to lure Susan and ensure that she won’t ignore his novel. He names the book Nocturnal Animals, for instance, knowing that she’ll remember he used to call her that due to her insomnia. He then leaves a note in the package using carefully selected key words to intrigue her:
“It’s different from the kind of things I was writing when we were together. In the end, you left me with the inspiration that I needed to write from the heart. I wanted you to be the first to read it, so I’m sending along a proof. I will be in L.A. until Wednesday on business and it would be good to see you after so long.”
The use of diction here has a passive aggressive undertone, but it also emulates a sense of nostalgia. Susan’s curiosity has undoubtedly been aroused at this point, but there’s also a lot of confusion. Edward has to give her one final push in order to tip the scales.
His last and strongest idea is the dedication; those two words, ‘for Susan,’ set his master plan in motion. Dedicating a book or any form of art to anyone is a confession of love and appreciation. In this case, it can even be perceived as an act of forgiveness; an olive branch, if you will. Susan lingering in the dedication page and running her fingers over her name is indicative of her entrapment. Edward has successfully seduced her into reading the novel, and there is no going back.
Edward’s next step is to strategically construct characters that will function as stand-ins for the family he could have had with Susan, if she hadn’t gone through with an abortion. Accordingly, his story includes Laura (Isla Fisher) and India Hastings (Ellie Bamber) both of which have red hair, like Susan, and Tony Hastings (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is cast by Susan as Edward. Even if it’s not obvious from the beginning, Edward writes a story about himself. Thus, creating a protagonist that shares characteristics with him lets Susan know, even if she’s not consciously aware of it, that this is a story based on real life events, or in this case, emotions.
Appropriately, the fact that Laura Hastings represents Susan isn’t manifested on the superficial level of hair color alone; Edward goes deeper and subtler. Laura is ‘the boss’ of the family, Tony says, and the scene momentarily cuts to Susan flinching. The audience is unaware of it at this point, but Susan was more of a dominant figure during her relationship with Edward. Susan is annoyed because being ‘the boss,’ on a subconscious level, points to her controlling and domineering attitude towards the end of their short-lived marriage. While in the beginning of their relationship Susan embraces every aspect of Edward, later on she abandons him for the ‘handsome and dashing’ Hutton Morrow, (Armie Hammer) or more accurately for his social status and everything it entails.
Ironically, Susan chooses everything that is connected to that ‘antiquated idea’ her mother supported regarding how her life should be; a lifestyle which Susan used to despise as the adjective ‘antiquated’ connotes. Cunningly enough, Edward expresses his bitterness over Susan’s choice indirectly through Ray’s (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) comments: “You think you’re better than us? Fucking uppity rich bitch. I’ll teach you a fucking thing or two.” Undoubtedly, Edward teaches Susan a lesson even if, unlike Ray, he never goes near Susan in the present; he teaches that lesson through his writing.
While in her early 20s, Susan defines Edward’s artistic inclination and writing as bravery, and she eventually perceives it as an unrealistic dream. This clash between the realist/romantic binary is initially presented during a dinner Susan shares with her mother, Anne Sutton, (Laura Linney) in the past. This conflict takes a visual manifestation as well by taking the form of the black/white and minimalist/ornate binaries as it is demonstrated in the image above. For Susan, Edward is ‘sensitive,’ someone who has the strength to ‘believe in himself,’ which is a quality she admires. For her mother, on the other hand, Edward is ‘weak,’ ‘fragile,’ and a ‘romantic.’ He is a man that doesn’t abide by high society standards because as she states, ‘he’s not [Susan’s] equal.’ All these characteristics are bestowed on Edward, therefore, due to his un-befitting social background and his lack of ambition to gain some influence at the present moment; he has no value, as her parents define it, and he never will.
Even if she’s initially appalled by these ideas, Susan eventually internalizes her mother’s views. This is demonstrated in another flashback during which Susan reads part of Edward’s novel. Back then she rejects his art, the very thing she’s now immersed in, because it can’t provide her the esteem she eventually needs. Just like her mother, she calls him ‘romantic,’ with the same condescending tone, and therefore communicates the fact that she doesn’t believe in him. “What? Is this it, Edward?” she asks, and Edward’s reply “You sound like your mother,” is the undeniable truth. Sitting on a red velvet couch, Susan neither understands nor accepts Edward anymore, and for him that’s nothing short of betrayal.
Appropriately, Tony finds the naked and lifeless bodies of his wife and daughter on a red velvet couch in the middle of nowhere. The red couch is where Tony, and therefore Edward, lost everything. In the ‘Making of Nocturnal Animals’ video, Tom Ford claims that the red couch is significant because it conveys how Susan belittling Edward’s writing ‘burned into his mind as a horrible moment where this woman didn’t understand him.’ It’s no coincidence that Susan starts remembering her life with Edward after the red couch is included into the story; it actually demonstrates Edward’s extensive knowledge of her.
It goes without saying, therefore, that Edward succeeds, and Susan goes to that dinner date completely entranced by him. But, now it’s his turn to abandon her. Edward never shows up because only in his absence can Susan learn her lesson. As Edward said all those years back “When you love someone, you work it out. You don’t just throw it away. You have to be careful with it. You might never get it again.” Edward is arguing that people aren’t disposable. But Susan not only threw him away, she also threw away their child, and Edward can’t forgive that. The novel isn’t a peace offering, but a tool created with the sole purpose to destroy her. After all, she gets a paper cut by merely trying to open it, and by the end of it she is meticulously led to the devastating reality that he won.
Overall, Nocturnal Animals is a cleverly executed thriller that flawlessly connects the dots and creates a beautiful whole. The same can be said of Edward. Although spending 19 years to perfect a revenge plot can definitely be termed as obsessive and unhealthy, there is no denying that he handled the whole situation with awe inspiring Machiavellian precision. After all, his choice of medium is brilliant not only because it’s the very thing Susan told him that he would never achieve, but also because it gives him the ideal amount of distance he needs to express his contempt without ruining his plans. Accordingly, Edward’s final move is a strategically unexpected checkmate.