Redefining the thriller genre – Nocturnal Animals


By Chatcha Hengprasit.


Nocturnal Animals is a neo-noir psychological thriller film centred around the notion of revenge. Director Tom Ford has already distinguished himself as a fashion auteur, and he now lends his visionary excellence to this Austin Wright adaptation. Making this the second aesthetically pleasing spectacle he has directed. Could Ford’s creative innovation be accredited for how Nocturnal Animals has changed the scope of revenge films? Contemporary thrillers and horrors have moulded the concept of revenge to be synonymous with death and violence. Classic revenge films such as: Memento, Kill Bill and Gladiator reaffirm this idea since they see their protagonists driven by a relentless need to elicit psychical pain. Nocturnal Animals offers a refreshing attitude to the outdated nature of revenge. Ford introduces the idea that violence is not a means to an end – and calls for the resurgence of psychological manipulation.

Revenge is a concept in film that has become so overpopulated with sporadic violence, that the exasperation that once came with death, has been removed. Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) devises an intrinsic ploy for revenge, which will symbolically immobilize Susan Morrow (Amy Adams); and leave an emotional wound so fatal, that her life will never be the same again.

That is not to say that violence is not evident in Nocturnal Animals. Ford employs violence through the parallel narrative titled “the novel” which runs alongside the “real world”. Susan Morrow reads and visualizes her ex husband’s novel, so the story and violence conveyed is a subsequent fragment of her imagination. Is Ford suggesting that psychology is the new violence? Quite simply, yes. As the narrative in Nocturnal Animals develops, the audience are compelled to follow the life of Susan Morrow. They become invested in her character, since they develop an understanding of her motivations, her current disdain for life and her family values. When these attributes are used against her to cause her pain, the audience resonate deeply with her since they have an understanding of her past, her current situation and her desires for the future.

In unpicking the intricacies of psychological revenge, we must delve into its conception by the ‘master of suspense’ – Alfred Hitchcock. Whilst Hitchcock’s films are psychological in theory, they relate more to psychological impairment. The emphasis is placed predominantly on the manifestation of neuroses and psychoses of the individual. His plots derive from the exploration of antagonist’ propensity to inflict their psychological impairment onto other characters. “Hitchcock’s Spellbound was one of the first Hollywood films to sell psychoanalysis to an American audience,

and was the first in which a psychiatrist instead of a private detective solved the mystery”. This introduces the rhetoric that psychological exploration will ultimately triumph within a narrative film. Since Hitchcock subverted the conventional trope of revenge – he is inadvertently instilling the idea that audiences are more responsive towards cognitive exploitation, than they are violence. Nocturnal Animals feeds off this notion since it is substituting physical revenge for psychological torment. Because as Hitchcock has exhibited, manipulating the psychosis of the human mind creates more depth in a film than violence can.

One cannot singlehandedly reform a stock narrative. Revenge films have been yearning for amendment since Tarantino’s departure from subtle violence. Where he was once renowned for his utilization of violence – Reservoir Dogs, 1993 and Pulp Fiction, 1994. He is now condemned for its overkill, cemented by his need to provoke his audience. If Tarantino was more responsive to an evolving audience he would understand the need for substance over style. Nonetheless, this paves the way for innovative films such as Nocturnal Animals to challenge its audience through psychological digression.

When Edward uses “the novel” as a contraption to reopen old wounds, he inadvertently forces Susan to become perceptive of her own deteriorating marriage. Edward uses their years of marriage to engineer a fabrication so detrimental to Susan – her vehement response was inevitable. As Susan becomes immersed by the novel, so do the audience. The intersecting narratives serve to inform the audience of Edwards motivations since it depicts their past transgressions – even if the past is just a projection of Susan’s memories. Ford makes a deliberate attempt to

broaden only the characterization of Susan and Edward. The proficient dramatization of these characters urges audiences to a greater sense of investment towards these individuals. A greater investment in these characters, means that Edwards revenge is all the more hurtful.

Edwards approach to revenge can be perceived as reflective of society’s moral codes. Obama introduced a progressive and tolerant consensus amongst the American nation. He advocated fundamental faith in human progress and non- violence practiced by men like Ghandi and King. “For if we lose that faith – if we dismiss it as silly or naïve; if we divorce it from the decisions that we make on issues of war and peace – then we lose what’s best about humanity. We lose our sense of possibility. We lose our moral compass.” (Barack Obama, 2012). Obama insinuates that war is almost ironically synonymous with peace. Edward embodies this idea since his weapon of destruction is “the novel”. Edward disrupts the peace in Susan’s mind – planting ideas and desires for her to crave, only to leave her unfulfilled. Since Edward created a cognitive war in Susan’s mind; he is taking advantage of the perspective being implemented by Obama – the human condition can be molded.

Nocturnal Animals makes an unconscious remark on current societal issues. We all view war as the antithesis of peace. Therefore, when the treacherous conditions of terror play out, the end goal of societal morality becomes more urgent and explicit. Edward feeds off this sentiment. No characters in Nocturnal Animal’s “real world” die. However, the portrayal of “the novel” sees Edward, and Susan’s child meet their demise. This imagery desolates Susan and she gains clarity on what was perhaps unconsciously salient to her – her family values. The novel identifies her needs.

Edward makes her year for it, only for the film to culminate with Susan engulfed in emotional pain, which equates to a symbolic demise. If Edward were to follow in conventional suit of a revenge film, the film would have ended with Susan’s cold bloody corpse. Instead, Susan’s emotional rollercoaster climaxes with her alone at a restaurant; as she and the audience realize that Edward did not write the novel in hopes of a recollection like he led her to believe. Instead, it was to cement her future in eternal turmoil.


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