Nocturnal Animals: Why Tom Ford’s Latest Thriller Is Not The Glorification of Violence That Some Suggest

Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is much more complex than suggested by some.

Unlike many people, I loved Tom Ford’s first film A Single Man. I thought it was profound and interesting and beautifully shot. A lot of people would probably only agree with the last point. So, I was more excited than most for the arrival of Ford’s second film Nocturnal Animals, even though the trailer looked a million miles away from 2009’s A Single Man.

I personally thought Nocturnal Animals was excellent. The performances were great. The cinematography, direction, and art direction were all fantastic. The tenacity with which the story within a story was told somehow made the concept seem fresh. And that scene in the middle was horrendously gut wrenching. I – like I’m sure many others – sat with bated breath and white knuckles counting down the seconds until it was over.

(Spoilers ahead)

A quick synopsis if you need it:

There are basically three parts to the film: the present, the past, and the novel. In the present Amy Adams plays Susan, an art gallery owner with a crappy marriage to a cheating businessman husband. Susan receives a manuscript from Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), her ex-husband, entitled “Nocturnal Animals”. As Susan begins to read the transcript we’re taken into the novel, where Tony (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife (played by Isla Fisher, and as always Fisher and Adams look very similar) when they run into a group of men, who run them off the road, kidnap Tony’s wife and daughter, and then rape and murder them. The rest of the novel is taken up by Tony’s search for revenge (with the help of Michael Shannon as Detective Bobby Andes). Back in the real world we are shown Edward and Susan’s past marriage in flashbacks, which ended with Susan leaving Edward for her current husband and aborting their baby without his knowledge. The film ends with Edward standing Susan up for their catch up in a restaurant.

That scene

You know the part I’m talking about. Everyone who’s seen the film, and probably a fair few that haven’t, know the scene that I’m talking about. That part of the story, and in particular that scene, is harrowing and feels deeply violent.

To recap: Tony is going on holiday to West Texas with his wife and daughter. They have what at first seems like a road rage incident, but quickly turns sour. Tony tries to keep everything under control when three men appear and start acting strange and threatening towards the family, helping to fix a flat tyre they no doubt created. Eventually his wife and daughter are in the car alone, at which point they are abducted. Tony is forced to follow in the other car. He manages to escape and finds their dead bodies the next day with the help of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon).

Part of what I liked about this scene, other than the fantastic way Ford builds tension so subtly, was the way in which Tony acts. He seems to be not trying to start a fight and remain hopeful that the group of men don’t mean them harm. His wife and daughter, on the other hand, appear to know what’s up straight away – something that I felt rang particularly true as a female viewer.

This part of the story is the book written by Susan’s (Amy Adams) ex-husband Edward, and plays out like a revenge fantasy. Susan aborted a child that was hers and Edward’s without consulting him, after she had left him for another man.

Accusation of violence for violence’s sake

Victoria Coren Mitchell recently wrote an article where she accuses the movie of vapidness, being akin to pornography, “gynophobic death-porn” and arguing that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre never got such accolades.

Scrolling through the comments it become quite obvious that most of the people commenting on the article have not seen the film, and are now unlikely to do so. Accusations of graphic rape scenes that are always unnecessary are thrown around, talk of men making graphic (and pornographic) films that are about women as hapless, but visually attractive victims.

What Coren Mitchell, and many of the commenters, seem to miss is that, terrifying as the movie is in parts, it’s easy to forget that there is almost no violence actually shown in the film. Most of the violence happens off camera (one of the exceptions is Tony visualising what happened to his wife while it is described to him – where we shakily see Isla Fishers face screaming). But they would not know this without seeing the movie.

Coren Mitchell’s argument that women are raped and murdered in the real world and therefore shouldn’t be glorified on screen is fair enough when it truly is glorification, but this is not accurate for Nocturnal Animals. The reactions to the “violence” with Nocturnal Animals seems to broadly swipe at anything violent within film. I understand some people do not like violence at all, and avoid violent films, but to say that is unnecessary would limit us greatly.

Nocturnal Animals doesn’t glorify violence against women, and to suggest it does is to deeply misunderstand it. It explores something much more complex and nuanced: the mundane violences we visit on each other in relationships and how that is dealt with. The violence (if there is violence) is in Edward’s writing of the scene in the novel, not within the scene itself.