The Double Life

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

Nocturnal Animals | Focus Features
Focus Features

“…everything uncanny is that which ought to have remained hidden and secret and yet has come to light.”  

—Sigmund Freud


There has been a kind of face blindness with regard to cinema’s current redheads. Jessica Chastain is confused for Bryce Dallas Howard, who is taken for Isla Fisher who is mixed up with Amy Adams. Perhaps it’s the paucity of women’s roles, even now, that has made this recent clutch of women at times seem so indistinguishable. When they have been featured in the past, ginger-haired leads were distinct. In the 1940s, they had roles not just within a film but within Film’s consciousness: archetypes of how women could be. There was no confusing Rogers, Hayworth, and Hepburn in the ‘40s. But this was also true of Sarandon, Moore, Kidman and Roberts in the ‘90s, and auburns Kristen Stewart and Emma Stone in the aughts.

At times, these contemporary reds lean into the confusion: they pose next to each other on Instagram or impersonate each other on late night talk shows. It is both a canny and an uncanny kind of collusion: reinforcing your presence by being slippery, by making the public look and look again. In time, they have come into focus: Jessica Chastain, appears to be the most outspoken; Bryce Dallas Howard is a shapeshifter; Isla Fisher is a comedienne with a touch of Madeline Kahn; Amy Adams is, foremost, undefended. But in the public eye—as opposed to the gaze of an avid moviegoer—each has become a hologram, constructed from their own performances and amplified by their peers’ work. And Tom Ford makes cunning use of this collective elision by casting Amy Adams as his lead in his psychological thriller Nocturnal Animals.  


What we first see are flashes of flesh, nearly naked women twisting in slow motion on a stage.  A red curtain glitters behind them, the setting for a magic act or a Lynchian black lodge. Some of the women wear cowboy hats and boots; some of them bare scars as they dance, slick swatches of darkened skin, record of some surgical wound. No soundtrack to their movements, no prompt for their faces, which are contorted in grim pleasure or extreme exertion or sincere distaste. It’s a peepshow made obscene.

Then the film jumps. The camera tracks across a gallery, aloft above a sleek crowd. Now we see that some of the dancers perform on towering IMAX projections; some of them lie on their sides on white pedestal displays. Prone, unmoving, two dimensional—they are art, and their heft is a provocation. As a director, Ford works in a curious ratio of intuitive metaphor and undramatized exposition. And this exhibit, planned by Ford’s lead character, indicates how his film will work: on their sides, the women resemble the Tollund man, ancient remains preserved by the acidic composition of the environment. A film beginning with such images promises an excavation, an uncovering of past histories for show.   

Amy Adams plays Susan, a gallerist who lives in gelid luxury with a second husband, Hutton (Armie Hammer), and a cadre of servants. The morning after her art opening, she is surprised by a manuscript that arrives by post. Like a heroine in a fairytale, she splits her thumb opening the parcel, and the text’s enchantment upon her begins. We learn Susan had a first spouse called Edward, who has written a new novel and dedicated it to her.  His book’s title echoes his nickname for Susan, an entrenched insomniac whom Edward thought of as a “nocturnal animal.” It’s not an affectionate pet name but an accusation—we sense that a nocturnal animal is something savage, stealthy, and predatory. Susan left Edward on damaging principle: from a lack of faith in his prospects, from a sensible or self-aware need for stability. The romantic crime haunts her, though: it’s a tell-tale heart that has followed her through the years, disrupting the symmetry of her successful life.

At a social gathering, Susan and Hutton meet up with Alessia (Andrea Riseborough) and Carlos (Michael Sheen). The friends are West Coast vampires—bewigged, bejewelled, of a certain age but ageless—and their conversations are a brocade of the innocuous and the urgent. At this privileged altitude, it’s hard to sort the superficial from the existential. Surely the art opening was Susan’s crowning achievement? Surely the compromises of living with a gay husband are more palatable than the betrayals of holding onto a straight one? And more importantly, what about sleep? Among the exaggeratedly busy and wealthy, sleep becomes the ultimate luxury: not a high but an analgesic. Sleeplessness is the mantle and the deficit of the high achiever —some internal insufficiency keeps her restless, awake, and dissatisfied.

When her slippery second husband departs for the East Coast, Susan stays up to read Edward’s book. Normally, a story within a story lends a feeling of uncovering a mystery: the latent secrets of the past exposed to explain and solve the present. But in this case the present action—the film’s heroine who is meant to be our lead—is overtaken by the emotional and physical violence within the novel. The movie we end up watching is the story that plays out in Susan’s head, her own past braided with an alternative past composed by Edward.

The novel begins at night on a dark road. Jake Gyllenhaal (playing Edward in flashbacks and Tony as the novel’s hero) drives his family through West Texas. It’s an unremarkable domestic scene that promises disruption: Edward’s teenage daughter absorbed in her phone until the signal cuts out; his wife reprimands her from the front seat. When the camera slides from Tony, we notice the wife is played by Isla Fisher. And this alchemy, in which director Ford and novelist Edward transform Amy Adams into Isla Fisher, confirms that the novel is about the unfinished business of Edward and Susan’s romance, about the kaleidoscopic nature of a shared past.  Each woman–the actual Susan and the fictional Laura—is an iteration of the other. Or at least that’s how Susan, the reader, is taking it.

The novel-film unspools in torturous episodes. A 17-minute stretch of nightmare as the family is side-swiped and hijacked by a villain (Adam Taylor Johnson) of unexplained malice. Slow time in the cold desert when Tony is abandoned and the women are absconded. The terrifying crackle of the villain’s car on a dirt road when he returns and calls out for Tony, saying Tony’s wife is asking for him. Tony’s silent dilemma as he measures self-preservation against self-respect. If he responds, he’ll almost certainly be killed; if he doesn’t respond, he tacitly allows his wife and daughter to die without putting up a fight. The dawn after the abduction when Tony staggers through the voided landscape to find help. The drive with his ally, a local cop (Michael Shannon), to view the bodies. The perverse sensuality of his wife’s and child’s naked, lifeless bodies. The flashes of their imagined rapes.

Between these episodes, the film cuts to Susan, in full makeup and heavy-framed glasses, in pristine houses and stentorian work spaces. In its extreme glamour, the film takes on a haute absurdity—you might despise or disdain or disallow the melodrama of Susan reactions. Can a woman so swaddled in the sublime be penetrated by the events inside a book? Even so, the viewer is drawn in, because of the uncanny correlation between the storylines. The mind toggles back and forth to correspond the details of Susan’s and Edward’s relationship (a superficial rejection and a cruel rupture depicted in flashback) with the sordid violence of the novel. The events dovetail but do not match. In maturity, Edward has risen to fiction’s first challenge: to recreate the emotional truth of lived experience without being limited to its mundane details.  


There is an overpowering glamour (as in enchantment) to the redhead in art—an eye-catching, trance-like thrall. Think Edvard Munch’s auburn figure in Love and Pain (also called Vampyr). Munch returned obsessively to red-headed figures: he painted Vampyr at least six times; it was coveted and fetishized. One version was stolen from an Oslo museum. Another sold at auction for nearly 40 million dollars, setting a record for the artist’s sale prices. He painted the deathbed scene of an older, redheaded sister many times; and some say his expressionism was the result of his instinct toward certain emotional subjects and his inability to portray the events in all their traumatic realism. The theme and the gesture conveys the details of the feeling: the redhead stands in for all the primal emotion provoked in the painter.  

Perhaps it’s the relative rarity of the genome; maybe it’s the sensory impression—the barely-there eyebrows, translucent skin, shimmering hair—of a person living at a different exposure from the rest of us, a resolution that feels existential as much as physical. The redhead is at the border of life and death; she’s an elevating redhead; a transporting redhead.  Think of prone, bosomy Sophie Dahl in the advertisements for YSL’s Opium, a spicy and addictive scent contrived of Orientalist fantasies. The Opium campaign was conceived by fashion designer Ford after he had resuscitated the house of Gucci and moved on to revive Yves Saint Laurent. The older, eponymous designer Saint Laurent allegedly tried to sabotage Ford’s success and famously—perhaps jealously—dismissed him as a gifted marketer.  And the insult has real injury: as an image-maker, Ford has a preternatural awareness of what images draw the eye, the imagination, the libido. He himself makes public appearances in a quasi-uniform: crisp white shirt, slim black suit, a day and a half’s beard growth. It’s a style that is much ad-man as artist: a studied consumer appeal. As a designer, Ford’s silhouettes may not impart the psychodrama of Saint Laurent’s original line, but Ford knows how to connect with his age as much as Saint Laurent did with his.   

Any Tom Ford film production is equally an exercise in style; the man’s aestheticizing impulses have been life-giving to him. At times he cribs Almodovar’s late period pop melodrama: posing graphic artworks (the word “revenge” stencil on a canvas in block lettering, for example) and architecture to foreshadow his themes. For Ford characters, style can stand in for feeling, or become an armor that keeps feelings at bay. Nominally, Ford adapted Nocturnal Animals from a book: Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. But the director told his cast not to read the source material, and he transposes the novel’s settings to places with which he is most familiar: the glittering vantage of the Hollywood Hills and the pitch black roads of his native west Texas. The choices add up; we begin to suspect this adaptation is a work of autofiction. So the question of Nocturnal Animals, with its parallel narratives that never quite connect, becomes: what is the urgency of a story in which its greatest violence is called out as fiction?  And can we find sympathy for a character living in such fantastic excess?


Amy Adams came up as a reedy-voiced optimist, chirpy and true, perfectly cast as Disney heroines and faithful sidekicks. An early Adams character sees the ideal in everyone. Anecdotally, the wholesomeness seems part of the actor. John Patrick Shanley said he knew she was right for the role of Sister James when he met her—let’s suppose because her native traits resonate with the nun Sister James. In Doubt, Adams displays a sincerity that is a sort of defiance to the rigid parochial structures around her; a naivete that is also openness; a flexibility that is strength; a faith that isn’t blind.  

After an early Oscar nomination for a supporting role in Junebug, Adams says she choked. By her own admission, she doesn’t like being looked at. That’s not to say Adams is not trying to charm or win over. But when such a tendency is innate—to sink into a part as an attempt to flee, to use the shield of another person’s emotion, clothes, body language—acting becomes an invisibility cloak. Normally, the nature of a star is to disappear to whet the appetite; to eclipse oneself in order to shine more brightly; to perform in conversation with one’s oeuvre. But let’s assume with Amy Adams a genuine attempt to disappear. For Adams, a false note is a self-betrayal.  

Gradually, out of ambition or opportunity or renewed courage, Adams’ roles broadened:  at first, uneasily, in David O. Russell’s The Fighter and American Hustle.  Perhaps Adams wanted to rough herself up (as a Southie slag) or to prove herself on the field of desire (as a disco queen). In Hustle, we see that she can Michelle Pfeiffer—she too can seduce with sang froid and a gown cut up the thigh and down to the navel. But you feel Adams’s doubt somewhere beneath her glamour. She is too self-conscious to embody a character whose empowerment begins and ends with her looks. And once she replaced her good girls and princesses with those darker roles, she moved to new territory. The question became: in a world that so regularly reduces women to adornment or victimhood, where does the good go in someone like Amy Adams?  

A recent clutch of performances suggest the answer: in Arrival, she is brave and terrified, brilliant, tenacious, self-defeating and world-saving, all in the context of an academic who becomes an adventurer. Arrival adopts Adams’ fractured point of view: her character is endowed with simultaneous vision, knowledge outside of linear chronology, due to her gradual fluency in an alien language. We learn her story as she learns it: Adams’s character causes pain for herself and for others because she knows that grief will be inseparable from her greatest joy. Lately, Adams has employed a low voice for her characters, a murmur that makes all dialogue feel like a tentative inner conversation. In this role and others, we find Adams embodying the inevitable missteps and compromises of personhood and seeking out methods of making amends. The artistic undertaking has a moral note: it feels like Adams is exploring how to be. In Sharp Objects, Adams is both a victim and a perpetrator—trying to shed the trauma of her youth through self-harm and intoxication then through a more purposeful destruction of a poisonous family and dysfunctional town. It backfires a bit, reminding us that happy endings are merely a matter of where you end the story.  


In Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford upends a familiar trope. From Vertigo to Lost In Translation,  there’s a moment when the lead character pursues a lost or separated loved one through a crowd.  He pushes past anonymous crowds, tracking his prey as if it were his last chance — as if he himself were on the verge of disappearing with the love object.  He taps the beloved on the shoulder, and the beloved turns. The pursuer looks at the beloved full on: at best, she both is and isn’t the beloved (Vertigo); or the separation of the couple is postponed but not avoided (Lost In Translation).  Writing a novel or making a film can be a memory project, a type of commemoration of the most personal details that are hopefully universal in relevance. The potency of Nocturnal Animals comes from the phantom of lost love—the one who got away. The surprise comes when Susan, in reading Edward’s manuscript, understands that she is not the protagonist of her own story; she is the beloved.  

It’s Edward who remains constant in fiction and in memory: in the quick leap of years as his fictional self hunts for the perpetrators; in the sense that Tony’s control of his own fate is tempered by the limits of his nature. Tony is afraid of death, so he cannot attempt to save his wife. He is afraid of murder, so he is not capable of exacting revenge even when given the opportunity. Edward/Tony’s softest impulses amount to his own end. The cop whose terminal illness allows him to skirt the law and take on vengeance as his mission. In his re-imagined story, Edward/Tony doesn’t survive the nightmare—but Edward remakes reality to get through it, to choose his own end.  

In life, Susan terminated a pregnancy with Edward, signalling the end of their relationship. But in fiction, Susan shifts and changes like a dream, like a ghost of herself. Edward has made art from his agony—preserved his wounds, made them meaningful but also cauterized them by killing off a version of Susan and of the person he was with her. Edward, the artist, is set free of the affair, never showing for a final, real life confrontation while Susan, the pragmatist, is left to ponder what could have been and what she’ll do next. In employing a chimerical protagonist who turns out not to be the lead, Ford upends expectations about how a suspense thriller should work: in Nocturnal Animals, emotional violence is senseless, revenge is all-consuming, closure is impossible. At the start Amy Adams would seem to be the narrative surrogate for the accomplished, influential director, but as the narrative twists away from her emotional anchor, we begin to suspect that Ford has split his investment in two: he’s Susan, the pragmatic businessman who sloughs off her unproven partner, but he’s also Edward, the abandoned dreamer. To sell his story and ascend in the world required some violence and sensationalism from Ford that’s still unresolved and mourned and now repurposed in a film to keep us up at night.