Nocturnal Animals: A Study in Revenge… and Letting Go.

“Do you ever feel like your life has turned into something you never intended?”

Susan Marrow – Nocturnal Animals

Ah, Love. Our favorite toy, is it not?

A multifaceted emotion that shapes itself in so many shades that it may as well be a demon unto itself. In some circles I’ve traveled, it is one.

Regardless, we speak so highly of love, don’t we?

Romance. Pining. First sight.

However, we rarely speak of the death of love. Love being done with us before we’re done with it. The loss of our desires and the unconditional obsession that follows the wake of such vicious wounds. One of the most underestimated and overlooked aspects in the death of love is revenge. The mortal wound called betrayal left behind when love becomes cruel and selfish. For what is the desire for revenge than an attempt to stitch the wounds of love.

Welcome to my Boudoir, dear indulgents. I am Ashmodai, your host in this corner of the universe. Please, have a seat. I’ve already poured a glass for you. Something dry, maybe even a bit bitter for the occasion. Let’s indulge the cruelty of love between one Edward Sheffield – a writer and hopeless romantic – and one Susan Marrow – an artist and a realist who took all of his gold without ever giving it back.

I present to you…

Fair Warning to the faint of heart and nerve, this is a tale of cruelty so expect graphic violence, sexual assault, and psychological torment. There will also be major Spoilers for the sake of explanation. Be warned and proceed at your own discretion.

Released in 2016, Nocturnal Animals is one of the most psychologically and emotionally visceral films I’ve ever had the pleasure of engaging with. A truly noir depiction of love at its most passionate as it becomes fatalistic. It begs the question of what happens when you cannot call off your ghosts? When closure is not an option?

It opens in a very peculiar and exploitative spectacle. Obese redhaired women are dancing and flaunting nude for a very decadent art show. Despite the celebratory expressions, something void and ominous settles over the scene. The soulless nature of it permeates every cut and smile, coming full circle when the camera pans out revealing it was a recording… and the once vibrant women lie face down “dead” in a macabre display. They began as carefree models uncaring of their nonstandard beauty and end as nothing but slabs of meat, their value now determined by the elite as they attempt to draw some form of meaning from their “deaths”. 

This is where we met Susan Marrow for the first time. She sits amongst them, leaning against the slabs with hair as read as theirs and gaze just as lifeless. No lines. No words, she blends almost too perfectly as she shows no connection to her work – the corpses of passions lost. At first, this movie piqued my interest with the visuals in the trailer. But, this opening scene… won my attention. It emersed me so quickly, it may as well have drowned me.

Susan Marrow is a lifeless corpse – an imitation of life, if you will. One who is purposefully surrounded by death in a sort of self-flagellation. Her life is very sterile. Her husband disinterested in her, and dare I say jealous of her. Her daughter is distant and almost nonexistent as she is in college. Her job is no more satisfying than tap water. It is here, surrounded by such a void, that Susan makes first-contact with her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield. His debut novel sliced her finger open and drew first blood.

Now understand, before we go further, that we are never given the opportunity to meet Edward Sheffield in the present. He is never seen nor heard outside of texts and flashbacks. By all intents and purposes, he is a specter in the corner of Susan’s life. By the mere act of delivering his debut novel, Nocturnal Animals — so named for the endearing term he used for Susan’s insomnia — he has begun quite a violent attack on Susan.

Susan spends her insomniac nights completely submerged in the violent, emotionally destabilizing tale of Tony, a loving husband and father who embarks on a road trip with his wife and daughter only to be ran off the road by a group of murderous men. The situation turns absolutely dark as they kidnap his wife and daughter right in front of him and Tony can only helplessly watch them drive away. Tony may survive the night by a regrettable act of cowardice, but his family does not. He and the local sheriff find them raped and murdered. They were dumped naked in a garbage pile as though they meant nothing to the world. It is here that Tony falls into an inescapable grief as he shifts from a passive man who couldn’t protect his wife and child to a machine for vengeance speeding towards his own destruction.

Through Tony’s trial, Susan recalls her past with Edward and their failed marriage. It is quite a vicious one, wrought with cruelty with a final betrayal. Her infidelity isn’t even her most heinous crime.

You see, Susan was once full of life and passion, beginning as a young woman desperately seeking release from the elitist world of her rich parents. She has ideals that set her apart from her family – or at least that’s what she believes of herself. When she reconnects with Edward, it is the answer she is looking for. That is, someone who believes in her and her ideals. Someone who embodies them. Her mother warns that Susan is used to a particular lifestyle and knows that all the things she believes are frivolous now, will become absolutely vital to her. Edward will be too weak to provide it to her. It comes to pass in exactly that way as Susan begins to express her fear and bitterness towards Edward in the form of harsh criticism of his writing and career. She covers it with the expression “I’m just being a realist” not understanding just how abusive her words towards him are. She has no faith in him.

As the story of Tony continues to darken, so does the story between Susan and Edward.

Tony’s feelings, his desperation and his pain, begins to haunt Susan in her daily life as she loses more sleep and becomes painfully aware that she is surrounded by stagnation. The most passion she has felt in years is from Edward’s manuscript. She is being confronted at every turn by the phantom of Edward through Tony from dismissing his ambition, to expressing her unhappiness at his weakness. This unhappiness leads right to her affair with the man who would become her cheating husband. And then… the aborting of Edward’s child.

“I want to know if they knew what was happening to them! I want to know what they felt! I want to know if they hurt!”

Tony – Nocturnal Animals

And now, I’m certain the viewer has come to realize what our absent Edward’s manuscript is about. What Tony’s story represents and why it is currently in Susan’s hands?

There is no rest for the wicked for the guilty do not sleep.

Upon completing the story, Susan goes through a transition much like Tony. It is visualized through the synchronized breaths of Susan sobbing beneath the water in her tub and Tony taking his final breaths after receiving a hollow revenge. And when she emerges, she sends a text to Edward, asking to meet him at a restaurant to discuss the book and to… catch up.

The final mark of this rebirth, this baptism in which she has ruminated on all her mistakes, is the donning of a lively, forest green dress and wiping away the blood red lipstick she constantly wore throughout the film. A subtle desire for healing. No more of the dead black and the bleeding red. In that moment, gazing in the mirror, she looks the most alive she has since we met her and she is ready to make amends for what she’s done. She is ready to call off the ghosts of her guilt and regrets.

And when she is at her most hopeful, her most ready to connect and heal with him… Edward never shows.

There is about a three minute scene where we watch Susan wait for Edward. We see her begin to spiral from excited, to worry, to almost pleading with her eyes for him to walk through that door, to anger as she sips her liquor. Finally, the forlorn Susan sits alone, gazing lifelessly at nothing. We come full circle and we say goodbye to Susan in the same way we said hello – left alone with her own creations.

The only difference: she is not numb. She is hurt.

Let’s discuss!

In an oversimplified light, Edwards is an utterly petty bastard for standing Susan up when she was ready to make genuine amends. You would ask why he would invite her out at all if he had no intention of showing up. I would ask you, from the truly visceral story of Tony and his wife and daughter, did you truly believe Edward would show up?

We often say that the best revenge we can take on someone who’s hurt us is to succeed. The reason for this is because success is the concrete proof that we do not need them. That our life goes on without them. Most would say that the healthy way to do this is to put the betrayer out of sight and out of mind. But let us not be so dishonest. You are all humans and many of you do not deal with such cruelties in the healthiest ways. You even know it’s unhealthy. But it makes you feel better, doesn’t it?

Edward is only human and as he’s never shown in the present on screen, you have no real truth to his feelings currently. All you have is Tony’s story and Susan being stood up. You see. Tony is displayed as a weak man, passive and dare say cowardly and he perfectly mirrors how Susan’s mother and later Susan saw Edwards. I dare say, she still saw him as such.

Susan comments at the beginning that he teaches as a professor and never remarried. “Isn’t that sad.”

After all, this story is from Susan’s perspective.

However, the truth of Tony’s harrowing journey, at least in my humble opinion, is the process of grief and recovery Edward had to endure in the wake of the near-fatal injury Susan left in him. Perhaps it truly was fatal. Edward’s slow transition from seeing her as the culmination of his desires for a future (the redhead wife and child) to seeing her as the gross villain that brutalizes and murders said desires and ambitions. And finally, the story is a lamentation over the man he was. The passive, soft-hearted romantic who allowed Susan to shatter everything that mattered to him. I believe a line the villain, Ray Marcus, says drives this home well.

“I got a certain pride in how people talk to me. There are certain things I don’t put up with. When someone accuses me of something, that’s a fuckin insult. It gives me the right. If my woman accuses me of fucking somebody else, well, then, I’ll go fuck somebody else. If your daughter thinks I’m a rapists, then she gets raped.”

Ray Marcus – Nocturnal Animals

This disgusting and insane line is very symbolic of Susan’s self-sabotaging nature. Her destroying the relationship between she and Edward like a prophecy she worked very hard to make come true. Edward himself says that she reminded him of her mother sometimes and through her self-destruction, she effectively becomes her.

However, Edward’s narrative is one in which Tony dies…

The character of Tony, after shooting one of the evilest men you could ever come in contact with, stumbles blindly into the sunlight, too injured to even bask in his revenge or seek help. He is weak and thus falls on his own gun, killing himself in a slow and painful way where no one can hear him and no one can see him. Tony dies here and nobody grieves Tony, the weak man, except Susan. It felt as though Edward was killing off the passive man Susan thought he was and that he knew he was to have let her harm him. Coming to terms with the grief and anger of Susan exiting his life, he purposefully leaves Susan to lament Tony because that is who she left behind.

This is his revenge. And the final, key piece is making it very clear that he will not be there for her. He is making the conscious choice not to reconcile with her. Standing her up at the restaurant is him finally calling off the ghost of her and solidifying that he does not need her anymore. She is no longer integral to his happiness.

I think many would laugh at this outcome normally, as a form of schadenfreude. However, there is no humor to be had in seeing Susan left alone in her pain and watching the light die in her eyes..

Not even a cathartic sort. If there is a feeling that is conjured, it is my absolute pity. Rather than saying “I hate you” or “I still love you” or “I forgive you”, Edward chooses “I don’t need you.”  Susan will never receive amends and closure she so obviously needs as she remains the villain. Thus the tragedy of it has no humor. She can never look back and laugh. And that’s where it is very realistic. Many of us cannot.

Nocturnal Animals displays through its darkness just how cruel love can be and how often forgiveness and reconciliation are not plausible, nor desired options. The best revenge is to no longer need the other party and that is what has happened here.

“When you love someone, you work it out. You don’t just throw it away. You have to be careful with it, you might never get it again.”

Edward Sheffield – Nocturnal Animals

So now while we leave Susan to fade and wilt in her stagnation, I implore you all to give this beautiful film a calm, private watch if you can. Decide for yourselves how you feel of Edward’s decisions and Susan’s mistakes. Do you believe she got what she deserved? Do you believe Edward was too petty and cruel? Do you think Susan will change and evolve through this act of violence from Edward or will she remain as she is? What does the story of Tony say to you about Edward? Answer these for yourself.

I, for one, am interested in what your idea of revenge are? What is the furthest you would go to make someone understand your hurt? Or even to leave them behind? Leave a comment below, or, take the discussion further and join us in our server: The Shoal

Thank you for indulging me.

I have been your host, the far too wordly Ashmodai and I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay in my boudoir tonight. Do come again. My bedroom door is always open.

Ah! And please! Leave your contribution on the dresser. My services aren’t so complimentary!


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