Art is more than communication; it is a presentation of the self and the world in one’s own style. There is content, but throughout the artwork, not within it. So, successful perception of Art is not just the reception of information; it is opening oneself to the other, greatly at the artist’s terms. For artists, however, particularly intimate ones, the exchange of Art remains communication, just one of a higher form. More communion than communique, the intimate artistic exchange between artists carries heightened expectations, rewards, and perils. Failure to adequately receive & understand the art and artist cannot be excused as error. The receiver is no longer an uninformed other, but an enlightened familiar, one whose intimacy demands perception, comprehension, and sympathy.
This is the dynamic dwindling in (and driving) Tom Ford’s brilliant Postmodern Noir, Nocturnal Animals. Its protagonist, Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), is a successful high-end gallery owner discontented with her work and marriage. A former art student, she now deals in what she condemns “junk,” while married to her pretty, hollow, and wayward husband, Hutton. Seemingly serendipitously, she receives a book copy from her first husband she had divorced 19 years ago, alleviating her present dejection. Her assistant reading the accompanying letter, she brightens as she hears the book is to be published, it is different than what he wrote when they were together, and she gave him the inspiration for this soon-to-be-published novel, entitled “Nocturnal Animals.” No longer just a book for Susan, this is her unsettled past possibly bringing a brighter future, a new escape from an old one poorly chosen.
That belated escape unexpectedly connects her to that desired future, as it entails a primal scene uniting them in embedded memory, if possibly hindering a true reunion. The scene was a brutal one. Frustrated with her husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal’s) insistence on pursuing his writing career, she chose to abort their unborn child, finding subsequent solace in the arms of her lover and soon-to-be husband, Hutton…solace witnessed by a devastated Edward. However, the scene was no isolated phenomenon. It was a shattering climax to Susan’s cruel crescendo of belittlement, her incessant undermining of Edward’s artistic confidence in hopes of his embracing a more lucrative career. Instead of that movement, he disappears from her for 19 years, only to return in the form of his art she had derided. Ironically, if she is to have her desired communion, she must embrace Edward and his work as the artist and art she had dismissed in their past. She also can no longer receive them as the cynical art dealer she had become, but as the artist of her past who received Edward as he was, not whom she wanted him to be. A true artist, Edward is communicating his art, himself, and the state her damage has left him in. Only a true artist can receive them.
As the communicating artist, Edward’s work cannot fade into incoherent abstraction; beauty and sublimity are not its only goals. As artist presenting himself as such, he also cannot become the polemicist, the writer privileging argument over the artist’s aesthetics. He must find narratives, characters, and mood conveying him and his experience without recognizably becoming them. This will complete his intentions and free him from her past belittlement–her damaging claim true writers (unlike Edward) didn’t write about themselves, an insistence he could dispute but never fully repel.
The narrative of “Nocturnal Animals” approaches but nimbly avoids that of a Roman a Clef. The protagonist is a successful writer with a lovely red-haired (like Susan) wife and a spirited red-haired teen daughter. Packed for a road trip, they leave their lovely Texas home in their nice Mercedes. There are clear similarities here to Edward’s–and Edward and Susan’s–story. Like young Edward, “Tony” is a writer from Texas who “left” his Texas home and was moving into the future with his wife and “child.” However, unlike Edward, Tony is an accomplished writer, and his daughter is an almost grown child, not an unborn one. An artistic reader could and should navigate these differences: recognizing similarities without ascribing sameness, seeing separation without discarding parallels. This acuity becomes more vital when the reader encounters Edward’s family’s horrid fate. Soon after leaving their home, two cars full of dangerous-looking young men begin terrorizing the family in the night, eventually forcing them off the road. After ten minutes of physical and psychological torment, the leader of the young men-and a few of the others–drive off with the mother and daughter and complete the novel’s horrific tragedy. Again, the narrative provides striking similarities and (greater) differences between Edward’s and Tony’s ones. There is no parallel–and the novel makes none–between the rape and murder of two women and a woman having an abortion, inadvertently destroying her husband in the process. There are, however, parallels in the two men’s helpless states and degrees of loss. Both Edward and Tony see their shameful weaknesses/fragilities affirmed as everything they had and hoped for is erased by outside forces.
Edward keeps Tony and himself separate, but close, throughout this tragedy through his symbolic use of character: in particular, his use there of metonymy. Artistic writers avoid vulgar representation–which is banal replication, not artistic expression. So, as opposed to metaphor, where a character represents and/or replicates an extra-textual signified, they use metonymy. There that signified is represented by different characters (and sometimes objects), and/or a character signifies different people and/or objects. The artistic reader knows this. They do not need the metonymic theories of Freud, Lacan, and/or Jakobson to know these dynamics are vital to artistic representation. They know without metonymy, Art degrades into argument free from vital sublimity. So, while that reader does look for inter-textual signification, they look for it in fractal connections dictated by the artwork, not in simplistic analogues suggested by myopic rationality.
Part of one fractal connection appears in the novel in the form of Detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon), a cranky rustic lawman assigned to Tony’s case. In many ways, Andes joins the assailants in representing the stereotypical Texas masculinity Edward shirked. As Susan’s mother tells Susan in a flashback, Edward has always been sensitive and fragile. As he shows Susan in another one, that sensitivity extends to his feeling guilt, not unease, at finding his best friend, Cooper (Susan’s brother), had had a crush on him. Andes, however, serves a more important metonymic purpose in representing a significant part of Edward, himself. Andes is Edward’s drive to accomplish what his weak, flagging self cannot. Andes’ separate connectedness shows the artistic reader Edward’s capability for such resolve while separating Edward from Andes’ banal virility & (more particularly) ambition he’d disdained. When Bobby asks Tony, “If we pick you up at the house, you think we could backtrack from there (to the crime scene)?” and he tepidly answers, “I could try,” Andes looks at him in incredulous condemnation. When Tony half-heartedly scans a line-up of suspects, pathetically claiming he recognizes none, Andes angrily responds, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Don’t you want to put these guys away?” Andes has become the dwindling, nerveless Tony’s dedication & strength needed for his revenge, as he embodies Edward’s once-untapped diligence & ambition needed to write and complete his expressive novel. This metonymy is finalized by the fact Andes is literally dying, Tony is effectively doing so, and Edward has seemingly spent 19 years fading into a dark place with a darker end.
Edward greatly symbolizes this dark place–and its cause–through his metonymy of Susan. Like Edward, she is partly represented by her obvious signifier, Tony’s wife, Laura. Played by Isla Fisher in the film, their physical resemblance is uncanny and she is the warm, loving wife Edward hoped Susan would be. But the wife is not enough. Edward had always seen Susan as an artist, despite her giving up her literal artistic career, not just a wife. We see that passion, strength and daring he saw in her in the daughter, India, who also looks strikingly like Susan, likely even more like the teen Susan and Edward knew. India is sharp-witted and confident–more than even the growingly cynical Susan–and shows creative/artistic potential before Tony’s failure helps end her life. The tie between the two women and the girl is further cemented by the way Laura & India are found–two intermingled, almost indistinguishable bodies pointing to shared existence as well as experience.
Ironically, Susan’s metonymy also connects her to Laura and India’s assailants, particularly their leader, the lethal peacock Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson.) As noted earlier, Susan’s strategic undermining of Edward had been catastrophic. As seen in an earlier scene, Susan’s mother had predicted this, “In a few years all these bourgeois things as you so like to call them will be very important to you and Edward will not be able to give them to you.” “Don’t do this,” she later adds, “you’ll regret it and only hurt Edward.” Once Susan and Edward are married, her words prove brutally prescient. Hoping to steer Edward into a more lucrative career, Susan attacks his work in a stream of sweetened invectives also attacking/gaslighting Edward himself:
You’re going to take this the wrong way.
I think you should write about things other than yourself
It’s just my mind started to wander while I was reading it and that’s not good, right?
Are you going to work at a book store and write your novel? Is that what you want to do with your life?
I mean that’s really Romantic, but (points to their shoddy furniture) this is it?
This is exactly why I don’t want to read your work because you always get so fucking defensive!
Edward makes passionate and articulate rebuttals, but they are defensive and unsure, convincing neither of them and continuing his decline.
Ray exacts similar–but more explicitly severe and horrid–gaslighting upon Tony throughout the novel. During their initial horrific encounter, Ray, picking up on Tony’s weakness in inaction, taunts, “Have you got a vagina? Have you got a vagina there, vagina boy?” Exasperated at his impotence called out, Tony can only muster an ineffectual howl. Ray continues this semi-familiar torment when Andes and Tony take him for a drive, hoping to exact a confession. Bemused, Ray focuses only on the weaker Tony, sneering, “He’s crazy…you’re fucking crazy.” And he finalizes his gaslighting and personal attacks, as well as confirming they’re connection to Susan’s, with his last words before Tony kills him: “You’re too weak, too fucking weak. You’re too weak to do anything about it.” By the end of Susan’s gaslighting, and during her planned escape, this is what Edward (partially correctly) heard in her words:
(Susan) You’re so …you really are so wonderful. You’re so sensitive and Romantic and…”
(Susan) What? No, I did not say that!
(Edward) You’ve said it so many times before; you might as well say it again.
As this exchange and her earlier undermining showed, explicitly calling Edward “weak” was not Susan’s mode of attack. But it’s what Edward often heard, affirming his inner fragility haunting him, the inner fragility he mostly blamed for his great loss. So, Ray allows Susan to be represented as cause of loss and crucial part of it, a complex metonymy of the resented, the cherished, and the lost.
This paradox shows in Edward’s sending the novel –an artistic work of stark revelation and potent demonstration–to Susan he believes can artistically receive it. He had always believed in her having those gifts. When she responds to one of his parries with, “No, I don’t because I’m not creative,” he returns with both assurance and plea that “that’s because you choose not to be.” She does choose this, likely galvanizing that in her rejection of Edward. Not only does she host ghastly exploitative exhibitions bereft of Art, she can no longer remember why her younger, more artistic self saw beauty in works she bought. And this shows in her reading of the novel. Not unexpectedly, she is moved by the family’s tragedy and Tony’s subsequent trials and torments. As a skilled non-artistic reader, she is able to recognize the skill and work in “Nocturnal Animals.” After reading through the night scene, she e-mails Edward:
I am reading your book. It’s devastating. I am deeply moved. It is beautifully written. I would love to meet on Tuesday evening. Let me know if you are still free. Much to say.
She is deeply moved and devastated, but by the fictional experience of Tony and his family. She cannot see Edward in the novel, nor even conceive he could express himself and his experience in it. If she had, she would not anticipate the “much to say.” And her memory fails her as much as her faded artistry, as Edward had earlier told her, “nobody writes about anything other than themselves.” So a reader-writer connection is made, and a vital artistic communion is not…and Susan moves hopefully forward, blissfully unaware of the ramifications.
So, she waits at the restaurant oblivious to the reality and reason why he is not coming…or is no longer going anywhere at all. There is Noirish exacting of revenge here–the victim of cruel devastation bringing poetic justice to his trusted victimizer and betrayer. But Edward’s book was not a hateful device he could have so more easily constructed. It was a final artistic communication of extended desolation coming to its close as much as it was an expression of resilient rage at the one who caused it. As an artistic one, it needed an artistic receiver capable of receiving and grasping it more than a receptor of wrath and pathos. Edward wanted realization and recognition, not reciprocal suffering. Had she met this expectation, painful knowledge and grievous catharsis could have reopened once-closed artistic escape of her own. Her reading a failure, and her artist now gone, she lingers in the crushed hope and cynicism she chose over her now faded art.