In defence of Nocturnal Animals and its portrayal of violence

Luke Stevenson is a journalist at Community Care and an avid cinema-watcher. He is also one of the three hosts of The Popcorn Muncher Podcast.

Amy Adams in the stylish Tom Ford thriller Nocturnal Animals
Amy Adams in the stylish Tom Ford thriller Nocturnal Animals

In every awards season, there is one movie that divides people. This year, it’s Tom Ford’s unflinching book adaptation – Nocturnal Animals. I gave the film a glowing review and it was in my top 10 films of the year. It’s not for everyone though, and it’s important to acknowledge that.

Possibly the most divisive aspect of Nocturnal Animals is a drawn out, skin-crawlingly uncomfortable scene where the central characters in the story-within-a-story are tormented and kidnapped. Shortly afterwards, it is revealed that the mother and daughter in the car have been raped and murdered. This is not an easy scene to watch, nor should it be, and it’s understandable why fashion designer Ford – who is known for his appreciation of style first and content second – would upset people with his choices in portraying this.

A complex discussion about the more troubling aspects of Nocturnal Animals has continued since its release. It reached its apex, though, this weekend, when a piece by Victoria Coren Mitchell in The Guardian attacked the movie’s traumatic depiction of rape and the way it was portrayed.

The piece is good, and there is little I disagree with in it. The scene is harrowing, and the way the film’s victims are presented after their brutal rape and murder is in a beautiful shot that betrays the true horrors of their experience. However, I feel that when people look at this scene, they remove it from its crucial context.

As with most movies that generate awards buzz, Nocturnal Animals is not told in a linear fashion, so bear with me while I provide some context.

 

 

The importance of framing

Amy Adams plays Susan Morrow, an artist, who gets sent the manuscript of a new novel by her ex-husband – struggling author Edward, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Their separation, we later learn, involved Susan cheating on him and having an abortion when she discovered she was pregnant with Edward’s child. The manuscript follows Tony Hastings, also played by Gyllenhaal, as a group of men kidnap his wife and daughter, rape and kill them. It then portrays his hunt for revenge.

It’s natural that with that content, Nocturnal Animals would provoke a debate about sexual assault and how it is portrayed. I think what’s important to remember though is that those scenes are filtered through two lenses – that of the director and that of Edward, his character. I can’t speak for Ford, but Edward is certainly a damaged man, struggling with heartache and acting out in a strange and elaborate way to punish his ex.

His character’s story is an extreme, blunt metaphor for the emotional heartache he felt Adams’ Susan had inflicted on him. Putting it into words is his revenge. It’s an act of emotional abuse, which you see Susan reflecting on more as the novel progresses and her relationship with Edward becomes clearer to the viewer.

The offending shot that Mitchell focuses on in her piece is the moment in which the novel’s character finds his murdered wife and child. They are both draped on a sofa in the desert in such a way that, without context, you could imagine a photo of it in an art gallery. However, with context, its beauty makes the whole experience even more harrowing and its framing is an insight into the deranged psyche of the narrator. In this moment, Edward is telling his ex what he feels she destroyed. He depicts something so beautiful to look at, ripped from the world in the most brutal of ways.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the loathsome central villain in Nocturnal Animals
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the loathsome central villain in Nocturnal Animals

Of course, the decision of how this is presented in Nocturnal Animals is ultimately made by Ford, so it’s easy to criticise him for portraying an event so harrowing in such an orchestrated way that betrays the reality of something that is very real for many people. However, the presentation of this scene is to reflect the inner workings of Edward. It exists within Edward’s story, rather than Ford’s. The scene emerges from the mind of a severely damaged man seeking to punish his ex. In this moment, he sees the life he could have had and how he feels it was ripped from him.

Is it right? Of course not. Ford is presenting extreme, inhumane violence in a beautiful way because that’s the way he feels he will get the biggest emotional impact from Susan. Edward is looking to shock and, in reflecting that, so is Ford.

Given the real life prevalence of emotional and physical abuse against women, it is only right that the depiction of such awful acts in cinema is scrutinised. However, it cannot be removed from its context. This story is being told by a damaged, spiteful man for maximum emotional impact. You only need to sit in the cinema and feel it – and sit online and read about it – to believe that he succeeded.

 

What did you think of Nocturnal Animals? Does it deserve the flak or is it actually a more interesting film than that? Let me know in the comments section.

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