Nocturnal Animals

To cover a story that is by no means simple or clear requires a simple narrative centered on a single individual, yet designer-turned-director Tom Ford’s second film is an adaptation of Austin Wright’s story Tom and Susan, which was originally intended to be a two-part series but emerged instead as the film Nocturnal Animals, a deconstructed metaphor of art at the bottom of the soul.

Amy Adams stars as Susan, a sad-eyed lady of the lowbrow art scene who is drawn to her ex-husband’s pulp novel set in west Texas as a wasteland reflection of their damaged relationship.

The most personal and private of all artists, writers do not think like others but must also be able to internalize what it is that others think. You aim to play music to a crowd.

And if the mood hits you, painting in public can be cathartic.

But a writer must lock the world out in order to enter the high-hell of disappointment and despair before discovery; that netherworld that is neither gratuitous nor sublime, lest the audience, be it reader or filmgoer, finds itself spiraling through indifference to a half-baked narrative. The writer’s craft is supposed to be uncomfortable, uncompromising and must run concurrently with his own reckless life. That’s why it is easier to write about oneself in the first place, which is addressed in this film.

Susan Morrow (Adams) and Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal) had a guilt-ridden breakup, yet after twenty years he has completed that much anticipated debut novel, and dedicated it to Susan.

Though she travels in art circles, she’s bogged down in the hell of L.A. noirish grime where the blistering sun highlights every blemish with the mental squalor of superficial standards. So as this film begins, Susan’s latest art show opening features obese, gyrating, naked schoolgirls as a forecast of the end of the line for what has become voyeuristic junk culture with its Annie Sprinkle clarity.

Poor judgment has blindsided her aspirations to move beyond the crud of patrons who speak of art in dollars, thanks in part to intrusive comments from her Southern conservative mother (Laura Linney), which guaranteed an incurable guilt to ruin one marriage before an incalculable doubt led her to a second that is plagued by abandonment.

In previous times, art was an expression of fear and superstition, where skulls were decorated, flattened animal pelts served as wall hangings and primitive people marked territory and taboos with geometric lines.

Like the drawings on a cave wall, Edward’s novel is dark pulp cruelty as opposed to blindingly lit gallery exhibits. Violence provides a link tying her devastating guilt to his death-blow words about “a family” under siege from a roving pack of hyenas who patrol this world without borders, which can be extrapolated to be the mirror image of a world without limits, much like the current art scene and/or literary circles.

His novel, Nocturnal Animals, is as much about that late night crowd that crawls forth into the darkness from galleries and concert halls, believing themselves to be the vanguard that gets to determine what direction the culture will take while classically trained “traditionalists” get ignored, or worse, preyed upon by elite barbarians at the gate making a test run by applauding junk!

“What is art?” chimed its way into mid-century classrooms, which gladly provided an answer: “It’s anything we can get away with!”

That reduces culture to prison yard rhetoric.

To the “art in the junkyard” cannibals who watch as a man pours paint over his own head to a background cacophony of muted retching sounds, it may indeed be seen as profound.

In Edward’s novel, those who crush the creative spirit, these destroyers of standards don’t fill a canvas but a cemetery, leaving the tattered bodies of “a family” along the side of a road.

It’s Henry Rollins’ snide poetic assault “Family Man” set to the squeal of tires. And there exist those who accept rape and murder as a type of performance art.

Constantly we hear it recommended that we “go to the light.” But what if the bright lights beckon toward the fires of hell?

Orpheus had to risk Hades to rescue Eurydice, just as Edward’s pulp novel encourages Susan to come alive!

Notoriety is not the same as renown.

Nocturnal Animals makes that distinction.