The twentieth century is when art became ugly. Oh, I’m not talking about the kind of art that philistines like me enjoy. I’m talking about that highbrow, elitist art consisting of ridiculous paintings, nonsense novels, discordant music, and weird foreign films. By the twenty-first century, the novelty of ugliness had begun to wear off a bit, but it can still be counted on to appeal to those who believe that an appreciation of ugliness is the mark of refinement.
Nocturnal Animals is not a weird foreign film, of course, but it could pass for one. Right off the bat, the movie presents its highbrow bona fides by displaying disgustingly obese, naked women, dancing in place, in what turns out to be an art exhibit. The woman who has arranged all this is Susan (Amy Adams). Her life is as ugly as her art show, notwithstanding all the opulence in which she dwells. Her husband cheats on her. She can’t sleep.
She receives in the mail an unpublished novel from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). I don’t suppose I have to tell you that it is an ugly novel. It is about a man named Tony, also played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Susan’s mind as she reads the novel. Just in case we might wonder if she is projecting by making this identification between the author and the protagonist, there is an earlier discussion between Susan and Edward when they were married, presented in a flashback. She criticized something he wrote, telling him he needs to write about someone other than himself. He says all authors do that. They don’t, of course. As Nietzsche once said, “Homer would never have created an Achilles or Goethe a Faust, had Homer been an Achilles or Goethe a Faust.” But in this case, Edward has created a Tony because he is a Tony.
Anyway, in this novel, Tony, his wife, and his daughter are traveling across west Texas when they are waylaid by a bunch of psychopathic punks. The movie wallows in the misery of a family being brutalized, resulting in the rape and murder of the two females. With the aid of a lawman named Andes, who is dying of lung cancer, Tony is able to track down the killers. Andes kills one of them, and Tony kills the other. However, the one Tony kills lives just long enough to hit Tony in the head with a poker, blinding him. Tony staggers outside, falls, and accidentally shoots himself, resulting in his death.
In reading the novel, Susan is deeply moved, even more than she was moved by watching a bunch of naked, four-hundred-pound women jiggle their decaying flesh. Why is she moved? Well, it probably has to do with the abortion she had after Edward got her pregnant. She never meant for Edward to find out, but for some reason he just happens to show up at the abortion clinic just as she finished having it done. So, you see, the death of Tony’s daughter corresponds to the death of Edward’s aborted child. And the rape and murder of Tony’s wife corresponds to Susan’s infidelity, because turning Susan’s voluntary lust and betrayal into a gangbang rape is Edward’s imaginary revenge against her. And just as Edward knows that he is weak, Tony is too weak to save his wife and child.
The death of Tony in the novel corresponds to Edward’s suicide, the novel being one long suicide note, which basically says, “You ruined my life by rejecting my love.” This is not made explicit, but it is obvious. When Susan emails Edward, saying she wants to see him, he emails her back, agreeing to meet. She goes to a restaurant, but Edward never shows up. Of course not. He’s dead.
For people like me, this is an ugly novel within an ugly movie. No wonder it got rave reviews.