This article means to explain the plot and the ending of the film Nocturnal Animals. So please beware of spoilers. The film is brought to us by director Tom Ford starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Isla Fisher to name a few. Michael Shannon, whose character is one of the best in the film, lost out to Mahershala Ali at the Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. So without much ado, let’s get straight into the plot. I’m splitting this up into two sections. The Quick Explanation and the Detailed One. Here’s Nocturnal Animals’ ending explained.
Plot Explanation – Quick Version
Susan meets Edward. He’s a romantic, she’s materialistic. Yet they fall in love and get married. He’s a struggling writer. Susan doesn’t see the right skills in Edward. She leaves him for another guy, a dashing businessman. She also aborts her child (Edward’s child). Edward is left devastated. Years pass. She is now living a rich life but a meaningless one. Her husband is cheating on her. She gets a book from Edward. [The story in the book is about a Tony who’s on a road trip with his wife and child. They get stopped and harassed by a bunch of goons. The goons make away with Tony’s wife and child and rape and kill them. Tony, with the help of a policeman Bobby, takes his revenge by killing the murderer but ends up dying too]. Susan invites Edward for a meet hoping she can fix some of her emptiness. Edward agrees but as a revenge, he stands Susan up. The book is a metaphor to say how Edward felt when his wife and child were taken away from him. He lets Susan rot in her emptiness.
Plot Explanation – Detailed Version
So let’s get the obvious out of the way. There are two stories in the film. The movie world is about Susan (Amy) who’s reading a book called Nocturnal Animals. The book is a story about Tony (depicted by Jake). The film is nonlinear and has interspersed scenes from the book and the movie. I’m going to separate them out and make it boring but easy to understand.
Let’s start at the beginning and follow through the movie world. Susan is an art major and meets a boy named Edward (Jake) when she’s young. She abandons art because she feels she’s not artistic in her thoughts, that she’s too cynical. Edward hangs around with Susan’s brother to be close to Susan, she’s his first crush. Susan has a crush on Edward too. Years pass and they run into each other in New York. Susan asks Edward out to dinner. The two talk about how Susan’s brother was gay and had a crush on Edward. Edward feels bad for not keeping in touch. Susan explains how that is sweet and how her parents did not approve of her brother being gay. She keeps saying that she is not like her mother. Edward tells Susan how she should pursue art and not give up on it. Susan and Edward fall for each other and begin dating.
Eventually, they plan to get married. Susan talks to her mother about this. Susan’s mother warns that Edward is not the right guy for her. That Susan might initially like his romantic nature but would eventually hate him for not having the right drive to build wealth. Susan’s mother is shown to be materialistic and is confident that Susan will grow up to be just like her mother. Susan doesn’t listen, she marries Edward. Initially, it’s all good but slowly Susan grows tired of Edward’s inability to write. Edward aspires to be a writer but writes about himself. Susan feels that’s not good enough and his writing style or topic will never earn them sufficient wealth. Susan finally gets what her mother was trying to say and decides to leave Edward because she feels he’s too weak. Edward still has faith in their relationship and feels they can work it out. He tries his best to win back Susan, but fails.
Susan cheats on Edward with a charismatic businessman – Hutton Morrow. She also finds out that she’s pregnant with Edward’s baby girl. Hutton helps Susan follow through with an abortion. While Susan and Hutton feel that Edward would never know, he catches them red handed in a car just outside the hospital. Susan has the abortion because she is tired of her life with Edward and feels that having a baby with him would only make things worse for her. Edward is left standing helpless as his soft, romantic nature has made him lose both his wife and his unborn daughter. Edward goes away and Susan gets married to Hutton. Years pass, 19 to be specific.
Susan, who still believes that she is not an artist, now owns an art gallery where she displays the work of other artists. This is where the film begins with dancing fat women.
What’s up with the film’s opening – the dancing women?
Apart from the fact that this is a form of art that is being displayed at Susan’s gallery, it is also a subliminal messaging about how women who don’t fit into the mould of today’s “ideal body size”, are still happy and celebrating. This is also an extended metaphor to show how people can be happy in spite of not having materialistic cravings (that the world otherwise seems to have). It is also the opposite of where Susan is today. She lives in a mansion with servants and personal staff. But her life is empty. It is quickly revealed that Hutton is not interested in Susan anymore and lies a lot to her. They seem to be in financial troubles too as their business is not doing well. Hutton is constantly talking about a deal he needs to make in NY to get back on top of things. Susan wants to spend some alone time with Hutton but he says he’s getting back to NY for the deal.
By now, Susan has received a parcel with the book – Nocturnal Animals. This is a novel written by Edward. The book reads that it’s dedicated to Susan. Nocturnal Animal is also what Edward used to call Susan back in the day. Susan is surprised how after no contact at all for 19 years, Edward has written a novel dedicated to her. This parcel is the first contact he’s making after all the time.
What is with the book? Why has Edward sent it to Susan?
Let’s stop to understand what Edward has gone through. For being a kind, romantic and a creative person, he was rewarded with a divorce and abortion of his girl. Clearly, he’s pissed off and has been so for all these years. How has he been channeling all that anger? Well by working at his writing, of course. Susan has always felt Edward was not good enough. She has also felt that Edward needs to write about something other than himself else it will not be good material. Well, Edward uses those elements to write this book to prove her wrong. He is looking for revenge. Obviously, Susan doesn’t know this. She starts reading the book.
What is the story in the book?
The book is a story of a person by the name Tony. The novel’s story is analogous to Edward’s life. This analogous nature is not evident in the beginning but it becomes clear towards the end of the film. We’ll get to this in a bit. As Susan reads the book, we are shown Tony’s character played out by Edward. This is because the book is written by Edward so it is natural that Susan sees the lead character being played by Edward. The book starts off with Tony (Jake), his wife Laura (Isla) and daughter India on a road trip through Texas. They are passing through a dark highway. On the way, they encounter a car that is blocking them. Tony honks, the car moves to give way. India gives the middle finger from the back seat to the driver that was blocking them. The driver takes offence, overtakes them and brakes abruptly. Tony rams into the back of their car as a result. The car has three people in it. After this, they force Tony’s car off the highway. They point out that Tony’s car has a flat tyre.
Ray, Lou, Turk
Tony’s character is shown to be identical to Edward’s. He’s a decent guy and is polite through the conversation with the three goons. The goon-gang consists of Ray, Lou and Turk. They are a gang that regularly harass passersby as that area has no phone signal. The goons get Tony and his family to step out of their car stating that they will fix their flat for them after which they will go to a police station to report the accident. A police car passes by but doesn’t stop, perhaps misses them in the dark. Tony is mostly submissive and cooperative through this episode and eventually, it leads to Turk and Ray driving off with Laura and India in Tony’s car. Lou forces Tony to drive the goon’s car and takes Tony to the far end of an abandoned town, leaves Tony there and drives back. Tony desperately makes his way back on foot. After a while, Ray and Lou return in Tony’s car looking for him. Tony hides behind a boulder till they leave. He does this instinctively because he feels getting caught only means more trouble. Tony continues to make his way back on foot all night long in pain and agony, wondering what his family’s plight might be. He reaches a farmhouse and requests to make a phone call. He calls the police.
Enter Bobby (Michael), a police officer who looks into the case of Tony’s missing family. He asks Tony to backtrack and they follow a path which leads to the naked dead bodies of Laura and India. [Susan is so disturbed by this that she calls her daughter to check on her. This daughter of her’s is not Edward’s but is Hutton’s. It is not mentioned explicitly that Hutton and Susan have a child, but looks like they did]. Bobby’s investigation leads to a Ray who was previously acquitted in a rape case. Later, Bobby tells Tony that his wife was killed by a hammer to her head and it was quick. However, the daughter suffered a lot more because she was suffocated. And that both of them were raped. Bobby locates Turk and Lou at a robbery. Turk is shot dead and Lou is brought in with a couple of other guys for recognition. Tony identifies Lou as one of the men from the night and is taken into custody. Bobby later tells Tony that he’s suffering from Lung Cancer. Bobby, with Tony, heads to Ray’s residence and takes him in for questioning.
Ray is later released from custody because the DA wants to replace Bobby and doesn’t want him to pursue the case anymore. Tony and Bobby meet. Because Bobby is dying, he doesn’t mind taking the law into his own hands so that his last case is not left open. Tony agrees. The two go back and nab Ray telling him that Lou confessed. They take Ray to the shack where he assaulted Laura and India. Lou is brought there too. Lou has been told that Ray confessed. The two confront each other making things clear to Bobby about them being guilty. Bobby needs to throw up so he heads to the bathroom giving the gun to Tony. Tony is not able to shoot to kill. Lou and Ray make a run for it. Bobby shoots Lou and kills him. Ray escapes. Tony pursues while Bobby goes in another direction. Tony gives Ray’s place a check and finds him sleeping there. Tony holds the gun to Ray. Ray tells Tony he’s too weak. Ray sneaks up a poker iron and admits to what he did to Laura and India. As Ray is about to hit Tony, Tony shoots Ray twice. Ray still manages to strike Tony with the poker iron. Ray dies. Tony is left blinded. He picks up the gun and stumbles out. He trips, falls and shoots himself by mistake. Tony dies. End of book.
What’s the book’s connection with the movie?
- Well, remember the analogy I mentioned? Let’s go through the characters of Tony and Edward.
- Tony has been written in the image of Edward. He’s polite, docile and possibly weak – so is Edward.
- The story where Tony loses his wife and daughter happens in a dark place. Edward loses his wife and his daughter (abortion) and his world is a dark place like the highway. A point to note here is the dead body of India is lying in the same posture as Susan’s current daughter. This is done to amplify the analogy for us, the audience.
- Tony is left helpless because he was too weak and lost his wife and daughter. Edward’s weakness makes Susan walk out of his life and abort their daughter.
- Tony is seeking revenge. Edward is seeking revenge.
- Tony takes his revenge by killing the murderer of his wife and daughter.
Ending Explained: How does Edward take his revenge?
After all the years of material hunt, Susan is finally living an empty meaningless life. Edward knows this. He pours his life into his book and presents it to Susan. She instantly admires the book and the writing and emails Edward asking suggesting that they meet. Edward responds saying he will be in town soon and asks Susan to just say When and Where. This is not typical Edward, but he puts the question like he’s going to arrive like the charismatic hero Susan needs him to be at the place and time of her choosing. Susan is in Edward’s shoes now where her husband is cheating on her with another woman in New York (the lift scene with the lady, Susan hears the liftman mention her husband’s floor to the lady). At this point in time, Susan is extremely guilty about what she has done and wants to meet Edward and patch things up. Maybe ask for forgiveness and maybe even run away with Edward.
Susan picks a fancy restaurant and dresses up in a fancy, seductive green dress. You can see she’s happy and excited at the prospect of meeting (and maybe getting back with) Edward. But her material life still makes her choose a fancy restaurant for the meet. She waits at the restaurant eagerly for Edward. Via the book, Edward has subliminally presented how he was left devastated when he lost his wife and daughter. All he wanted to do was to let Susan know the impact. The final blow is that Edward doesn’t show to meet Susan. Susan realizes what’s happened. Edward purposely has shown Susan a tiny but strong ray of hope to add meaning to her life. He lets that hope build and finally knocks it all down for Susan by not showing. She feels the burn in the end. Oh, she does. She drowns in the rest of her meaningless existence. Edward is weak no longer. He just let her know that he’s made it without her and she’s left nowhere. In the book, Tony dies too right? Perhaps a part of Edward (the part that still loves Susan) dies too.
An alternative representation which came from Lavinia Sha in the comments section down below is this. Edward is not seeking revenge. He perhaps hopes that after all these years Susan would have realized that being materialistic hasn’t given her happiness. But alas, she goes and picks a very fancy restaurant when given the choice. Edward realizes that she hasn’t changed and therefore doesn’t show. Perhaps if Susan had picked a modest place, Edward may have met her.