Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider two possible explanations for the ambiguous ending of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals. Yes, prepare for spoilers.
A good revenge story ultimately needs three things: a spiteful, cold-blooded villain; a heinous crime with a helpless victim; and last but certainly not least, a triumphant hero.
Tom Ford’s stylish sophomore feature, Nocturnal Animals (2016), has all the necessary elements. But on closer look, the twisted neo-noir isn’t quite as simple as your run-of-the-mill bid for vengeance. The film introduces the blueprint of the revenge movie only to subvert it and turn it on its head at the end. Perhaps it means to tell us that exacting justice is never a simple feat, and in the real world, it always comes with unexpected casualties.
The film, an adaptation of Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, first introduces Susan Morrow (Amy Adams), a wealthy gallery owner who is surprised one night by the arrival of a manuscript. The book-to-be, written by her estranged ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), is also titled Nocturnal Animals. As Susan reads, the film then depicts the story within.
Edward’s novel follows Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a man who goes on a bender for revenge after his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) are kidnapped, raped, and murdered by a sadistic trio of men whom they encounter on the road. Tony winds up killing the main assailant but also accidentally shoots himself afterward.
Nocturnal Animals the film ends shortly after Susan finishes reading Nocturnal Animals the manuscript.
Shaken by its horrific contents, yet moved by the skillful writing, Susan calls Edward and invites him to have dinner with her. Perhaps ready to finally forgive her for the infidelity that broke up their marriage, Edward accepts. Wearing a decadent green gown in an upscale restaurant, Susan waits hopefully for him. But as the cocktails proliferate and the diners come and go, Edward is nowhere to be seen.
And thus the film concludes with Susan expecting someone who will likely never arrive.
There are ultimately two plausible explanations for Edward’s absence that night. The first theory, which is the less likely one, is that he is dead. Maybe he was killed in a tragic accident on the way to dinner, just like the character in his book. Or maybe he went so far as to kill himself in his final “gotcha!” moment, illustrating to Susan the agony she caused him.
The second theory is that Edward simply stood Susan up. But why would he do that? And why would this be a fitting ending for Nocturnal Animals, a film so jam-packed with action and drama? After all, compared to the rest of the film, this final scene is notably quiet, and, let’s face it, anticlimactic.
If there is one thing we have learned about Edward during the course of the film, it is that he has a deep understanding of what it really means to exact revenge. In his book, Tony’s vengeance plays out against Laura and India’s killer, Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), in a satisfying bloody showdown.
So, when Edward fails to show up at the restaurant at the end of Nocturnal Animals, it would be an underestimation of his character to assume that he was merely late, or caught up in some way. No: this is a man who knows exactly how to deliver an effective and long-lasting punch. And by igniting Susan’s interest in him once again after a long marriage in which he was perceived as being weak, Edward finally has the upper hand and is able to hit her where it hurts.
Not only is Edward punishing Susan by standing her up, but as an author with such an intimate grasp on the nuances of revenge, he understands that for his ex-wife, he has sentenced her to a punishment worse than death. Susan is a deeply unhappy person. After Edward, she married Hutton Murrow (Armie Hammer), an affluent and aloof businessman, and presently she is trapped in a miserable and rapidly degenerating relationship with him.
The film implies that, while they were together, Edward and Susan were very much in love, and she was deeply attracted to his creative disposition. But Susan’s callous mother, Anne (Laura Linney), dissuaded her daughter from being with a struggling artist, and this attitude eventually rubbed off on Susan. When she left Edward for Hutton, Susan found herself bitter, depressed, and ultimately alone.
So, when she receives the manuscript, Susan suddenly feels as though she has a second chance at a fulfilling life. And, presumably, this is all part of Edward’s sinister plan. When she is left alone at the restaurant at the end of Nocturnal Animals, Susan finally understands true rejection, the way her ex-husband had years ago. Her thoughts of fear and dissatisfaction always kept her up at night during her marriage, hence Edward crowning her a “nocturnal animal.” Now she will be kept awake wondering why he didn’t show up.
Remember the rule that every good revenge story needs a triumphant hero?
Well, in this case, both the hero and the victim are one and the same. Not only was Edward horribly burned by Susan’s mistreatment of him, but he has also continually been burned by society after being consistently told he’s not good or strong enough. And so he wrote Tony, a semi-heroic vigilante, as an aspirational character. Then, when he leaves Susan sitting alone at the restaurant, he has finally become the sort of strong-willed character that he only previously dreamed to write up. But there is one critical difference: Edward doesn’t wind up accidentally destroying himself as Tony does. He has truly emerged victorious.
Perhaps on a lesser scale, Susan is also a victim herself. A victim of a suffocating society that values careerism over love and forces once-caring people to decimate their personal relationships in the pursuit of capitalist success. Whatever motivates Susan, though, Edward surely sees her as a villain. And at the end of Nocturnal Animals, her punishment certainly fits the crime.
Nocturnal Animals is currently streaming on Netflix.