On its surface, Nocturnal Animals is telling two different stories. The primary story takes place in reality, wherein Susan, a successful artist, is going through a crisis as she begins to question the life she’s chosen to lead. Her marriage is falling apart, and a chance to rekindle with her ex-husband brings back painful memories for her. The secondary story is about a man seeking justice for his murdered wife and daughter, which is entirely fictional within the context of the film. Both stories are vastly different in ways that are both obvious and not.
It’s clear that the two stories are driving together to reach a point. In Susan’s story, we explore her relationship with her first husband and how exactly it fell apart. It’s shown that Susan and Edward are two completely different people who have fewer things in common than they would like to admit. In spite of this, they get married, but it isn’t long before Susan begins to get frustrated with the situation. She takes a drastic step to officially end her marriage to Edward by having an affair with another man and doing something unforgivable.
The secondary story comes in the form of a manuscript entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ sent to Susan by Edward. It is violent, disturbing, and intense, which feels at complete odds with Susan’s own story. It isn’t until the end of the film, however (or earlier if you’re perceptive) that it becomes obvious that the two stories are somehow one instead of two separate entities altogether. Earlier in the film, it’s shown that Edward has dedicated the tragic story of a man’s suffering in the face of violence to Susan, which is a bit odd. But when we discover their entire history together, it becomes clear. Susan didn’t just end her marriage to Edward by having an affair. She also ended it by having Edward’s child inside her aborted. Although she had no intentions of ever telling this fact to Edward, he discovers it anyway.
In the film’s last scene, Susan waits for Edward at their agreed meeting place. Edward never shows up. She has finished reading the manuscript at this point, but it’s only in the face of Edward failing to show up that Susan understands why the violent story was dedicated to her. Susan has never truly understood the full extent of how much she hurt Edward until that very moment. It’s why it’s no accident that Susan imagined Edward in the role of the husband in the story, who eventually kills himself after finally taking justice in his own hands. All along Nocturnal Animals was an allegory to Edward’s marriage to Susan and how it ended. It sounds extreme and melodramatic, but it rings true for both of them.
This is why Susan’s crisis begins almost immediately after getting the manuscript. Having indirect contact with Edward after so many years brings up not only the painful memories, but the guilt that she buried as well. And although the film doesn’t paint her in a sympathetic light, we understand her character fully. We might vehemently disapprove of her actions and her selfishness, but we can understand why she chose to do these things.
But despite the film’s excellent character study of Susan, it falls flat in some of its execution. Having an entirely different story serve as an allegory sounds good on paper, but the film falls a bit short in this regard. For one thing, the fictional story of Nocturnal Animals never really draws you in. It’s well-acted and intense, but you can never shake off the feeling that you’re watching something completely made up that ultimately has no impact. There are times when it feels superfluous, managing to distract from the far more interesting story of Susan’s regrets about her past decisions. Perhaps the Nocturnal Animals story isn’t really meant to be treated as seriously as the “real” story of the film, but it takes up such a significant portion of the film that it can’t really be ignored. There’s a sense that this allegorical tale is getting too unwieldy and complex for the film’s own good.
Even worse, I don’t think the dramatic point of the Nocturnal Animals story was even worth it. I can’t help but wonder what a film that entirely consists of just Susan would look like. I feel as if there was enough material for her character to support an entire movie by itself. It doesn’t help that the Nocturnal Animals story was so straightforward and simplistic. Maybe I had unrealistic expectations of a story within a story, but it was simply too one-dimensional. This wouldn’t have been too much of a problem but the film is structured in a way that makes you see the Nocturnal Animals story as standing on its own, which doesn’t really work.
Still, it’s refreshing to see a film with an atypical narrative structure like Nocturnal Animals. For all its shortcomings, it’s an experience that challenges the conventional and largely succeeds at it. Most noteworthy of all are the performances that bring the two stories to life in intensely memorable ways. The cast manages to bring a grounded realism to a film that doesn’t necessarily have all the tools and expertise to achieve its lofty ambitions.