Violent Camp: A Study of Nocturnal Animals
“While seeking revenge, dig two graves — one for yourself.” — Douglas Horton
The nature of revenge films is familiar, and the nature of a rape and revenge film perhaps even more so. Both are mainstays of exploitation films, usually horror. Sometimes the character that’s raped is the hero, but more often they’re not, and are only fuel for the hero to exact their revenge. It’s The Virgin Spring, but most of the examples aren’t as highbrow. The Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave are perhaps more famous, and certainly more exploitative.
Tom Ford’s sophomore effort, Nocturnal Animals, takes the revenge tale and squeezes it for all its worth. It goes the classic route, but also uses exploitation as different kind of meta-psychological revenge, playing with characters’ minds with disturbing imagery and actions. It manages to be both brutal and silly, but Ford dresses it up as high art, which it often is.
Nocturnal Animals is a Russian nesting doll of plot, with three narratives all happening on screen at the same time. First, there is Susan (Amy Adams), who is sent a mysterious package that turns out to be the novel of her former husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). As her current husband leaves for the weekend, Susan settles into bed with the book. It is the tale of Tony, also played by Gyllenhaal, whose daughter and wife are kidnapped from a west Texas road, causing him take his revenge. It becomes clear that the novel is about Susan and Edward’s relationship, and Ford goes so far as to cast noted Amy-Adams-lookalike Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife in the novel, who is raped and murdered. Susan is forced to reflect on her past relationship, resulting in the third narrative, a series of flashbacks of Edward and Susan.
The rape and revenge exploitation narrative embedded in Edward’s novel is obvious. Three men run Tony off the road, kidnapping his wife and daughter. Tony later finds the two of them, raped and murdered. It’s the brutal inciting incident of the novel, the motive for Tony’s revenge.
Everything in the novel’s plot is heightened. From the over the top setup to the conclusion of Tony shooting and killing the final member of the trio responsible for his pain, Ford never shies away from imagery and dialogue that are pulled straight out of gritty 70s horror and crime films. Even in the West Texas setting and the people that populate it, a definitive slice of Americana, Ford shows the same type of “hicks” that pick off teenagers in movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes, hillbilly psychos intent on murdering nice suburbanites and city dwellers.
While the audience never learns Edward’s intentions, the effect of the violence in the novel on Susan is clear. She roams around her giant house, staring off into the distance; Amy Adams’ icy blue eyes, drenched in melancholy, are perfect for these sequences. Susan is both heartbroken, but more importantly disturbed. The novel’s vision of her and her daughter being raped and murdered is Edward’s revenge on Susan, for reasons that are later revealed. The exploitation in Nocturnal Animals is used both for the tale of revenge in Edward’s novel, and as a kind of meta-psychological revenge on Susan. After the highway sequence in which Tony’s wife and daughter are kidnapped, we return to the real world, where Susan is deeply disturbed by what she’s read. She calls her daughter, who looks hauntingly like the daughter just taken minutes before, to make sure that she’s okay. The novel has shaken her, and that’s what Edward wanted.
Did Edward make his novel so violent because it was the story he wanted to tell? And if so, did he send the copy to Susan as an afterthought, just to mess with her? Or did he write the novel specifically so that he could send it to Susan to disturb her? Or finally, did the rape and murder of Susan and her child just flow out of him?
Whether or not he planned to write it, sending his violent novel, in which he symbolically rapes and kills his ex-wife, to his ex-wife is Edward’s revenge. This kind of art as revenge is a novel concept (no pun intended), but not unheard of.
Perhaps the most famous example of revenge art is Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting, “Judith Slaying Holofernes”.
After being raped by her painting instructor, Gentileschi and her father took her attacker to court, and despite testimony on the stand, he was set free. Gentileschi was left to her own devices, which meant painting. She portrayed the biblical tale of “Judith Slaying Holofernes” with a brutality and realism unseen in any other depiction of the episode. Despite the Old Testament origins of the story, Gentileschi painted herself and her assistant as Judith and her maidservant. The personal aspect of the painting is obvious, as Gentileschi symbolically murders her attacker. The usage of a knife is even specific to her, as Gentileschi attempted to kill her painting instructor with a knife after being raped. While Gentileschi likely was able to exorcise the pain of her assault, she also made a spectacular painting that stands on its own, without any autobiographical explanation.
In Nocturnal Animals, Edward’s novel doesn’t need to be good, or successful in the outer world. For the audience, all we need to know was that he was able to hurt Susan. He and Tony are both able to get revenge on those who hurt them, one through physical violence, the other through art.
Revenge through exploitation is one of the most interesting ideas that Nocturnal Animals presents. The film mixes camp and exploitation throughout its runtime, finding a fascinating dichotomy between the two, one that’s also imbedded in the competing concepts of masculine and feminine. The settings of Nocturnal Animals will give you the greatest insight into the way it engages with tropes. The novel is set in West Texas, a world populated with masculine, mustachioed men. It’s a gritty neo-noir thriller, in which men with guns get vigilante justice. The only female characters are raped and murdered early in the narrative. On the other hand, real life takes place in the Los Angeles art world, full of beautiful, well dressed women. It’s a melodramatic psychological thriller, in which characters walk around sprawling modern homes and offices, often just as empty as these women feel. Ford is most interested in the filmic associations with gender. Exploitation and high art, violence and camp; both have strong associations with either masculine or feminine. The gritty of violence of a neo-noir thriller, one that exploits its female characters to give its male characters motives, is incredibly masculine. On the other hand, a female driven psychological thriller that becomes increasingly campy as Susan is driven further and further to madness is far more feminine. It’s the kind of Valley of The Dolls-esque story that has been associated with female driven b-movies (notably mostly directed by men) for a long time. Ford is able to take these two, seemingly at odds tropes, and put them together and let them bleed into each other. It gives Susan’s tale an edge and makes Tony’s story less brutal.
By mixing high art and exploitation, Ford finds a strange middle ground. It’s at times gritty and painful to watch, and at others, strangely beautiful and humorously ridiculous. Performances like Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s evil, murderous hick are campy and over the top, while Amy Adams is understated and moving. Because of the way it engages with film tropes so often relegated to B-movies and genre films, Nocturnal Animals is messy, but full of ideas.
Violent camp is a strange concept. Camp is a criminally underused style in today’s cinema, and it’s one that can be utilized to take the edge off something brutal. Exploitation is also something rarely seen in movies nowadays, and with good reason. With the advent of social media, especially Twitter, anything problematic will be called out. Exploitation is almost always problematic, but that doesn’t seem to bother Ford. This is the man who started off this film with dancing naked women, who he described as witches inviting you to take part in the story. But Ford knows how to dress something up as something it’s not (and that’s not a comment on his time in fashion). Nocturnal Animals looks like a piece of high art, and at times it is. But at other times its trashy, campy, and wicked. It’s plot, while narratively complex, is a story as old as storytelling itself. Shakespeare wrote a play of revenge, one of the greatest pieces of literature in the English language. I am definitely not comparing Nocturnal Animals to Hamlet, but it’s worth pointing out. Ford knows how to pull from the past, but also how to disguise that as something else.
Author’s Note: I do not think that ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a perfect film, but I do think that it is an endlessly interesting one, which is why I wrote about it.