Movie Review: White People as Nocturnal Animals

nocturnal animalsFinal Grade: A

Nocturnal Animals is a film ostensibly about relationships. The fashion guy, Tom Ford (who is the designer who dressed Daniel Craig in the last three James Bond films, who caused me to want to marry Craig after watching him move in those suits… Oops! Digression…) wrote the screenplay and directed this film. It is stylish and glamorously artistic, dark, subversive, and brilliant.

The movie stars Amy Adams as gallery owner, Susan. It tracks Susan’s reflections on her life and loves. Said reflections having been triggered by her reading of the very violent soon-to-be-published novel of Susan’s ex-husband, Tony.

One of my favorite scenes involves Susan pausing before a painting of the disassembled word REVENGE in her gallery, as if seeing the painting for the first time. It is a moment of revelation of the idea of vengeance; a moment of Susan reckoning with her past. The painted work of art is deeply affecting for Susan the viewer, in the way that the filmed work of art, that is Nocturnal Animals, might be deeply affecting to viewers of the film.

nocturnal animals. revenge

This kind of multilayered messaging is what I loved about this film.

The greatest example of which, for me, has to do with race. This film is not concerned at all with overt issues of Black/White race relations. Nevertheless, the logics of race, specifically of the White race, permeate it.

In a flashback of Susan and and her ex-husband Tony’s (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) first date conversation, Susan glibly lists all of the problematics represented by her conservative, Republican parents. They are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. It is this litany of conservative sins that is the seminal clue we are provided with that such matters are central to the operation of the narrative.

Ford soon shows us the the prophesied transformation of Susan into her Texas-rich mother, played by the hardly recognizable, and formidably talented Laura Linney.

Noctural Creatures.LauraLinney

While we are busy lamenting Susan’s understandable metamorphosis into wealthy White Womanhood, the story-within-a-story of ex-husband Tony’s novel unfolds. In the novel, a young couple and their teenage daughter are traveling at night across Texas. A car accident occurs that ultimately results in the wife and daughter meeting a grim fate–the unpardonable sin against White Womanhood. The story’s repeat references to the daughter as young, unaware, and generally innocent, has primed the audience for an, “Oh no! Not his daughter!”, reaction when the horror against her is revealed.

This is where the brilliance lies. Ford shows us the emptiness of young Susan’s grasping after the full measure of Whiteness which is her due, and then confronts us with our own collective veneration of White Womanhood, of White female youthful promise, in his flower-cut-down-before-it-has-reached-full-bloom way.

He makes this kind of subversive move again vís-a-vís White men. In Tony’s novel, the crime against White Womanhood is unconscionable and depraved, we are meant to understand. But we behold that this act of savagery is not committed by the typically (savage) Black or Brown  man, but by the (eminently/inherently humane) White man. That’s a twist. The fairy dust that Ford sprinkles on top, though, is to employ the very marks of humane White maleness–rationality, gentleness (not savagery), civility and adherence to the rule of law–to serve a White man’s masked and abject brutality.

While we are yet in the process of navigating our disorientation at the depiction of the banal evil of a White man and his friends on film, (“They must be pranksters. They aren’t really bad guys, surely,” we want to think in befuddlement), Ford confronts us with the troubling implications of our own sense of rationality and love of rules and justice. We shows us how we have been formed in the same mold as the humane White men, the “good guys,” we are watching on screen. He then contorts our law-and-order love into dimensions we never anticipated, by taking us into the mind of those who would substitute for rules, Texas-style frontier justice–over which hangs the immense and unmistakable shadow of southern lynch mobs and Klan murderers who historically pursued the same kind of justice (also in defense of White Womanhood).

As the film proceeds to its disturbing end we have no idea anymore of where we  stand, good people that we are, or of what outcome we should be hoping for.

Tom Ford has done beautiful work with this dark tale. We are all, especially we White people, this film seems to say, animals of the dark.

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