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It’s not hard to understand why. A sophisticated neo-noir thriller aimed at educated adult moviegoers, Tom Ford’s movie offered a jaundiced commentary on female self-determination. Its release on November 18 doubtless had nothing to do with Donald Trump’s election as president 10 days earlier. Yet the film’s emergence nonetheless echoed the curtailing of Hillary Clinton’s “uppityness”—in short, putting women in their place.
Adapted by Ford from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, Nocturnal Animals enfolds the torture, rape, and murder of a white, middle-class mother and her teenage daughter. That the events surrounding these offscreen atrocities are fictitious, occurring in a story read by the film’s protagonist, Amy Adams’s Susan Morrow, doesn’t lessen their horror. Whereas Susan’s present-day existence is stylized as a chilly dream, the unfolding Texas narrative she sees in her mind’s eye has a visceral immediacy.
This nested structure, which implies that the imaginary is at least as potent if not more so than reality, affords a commentary on how we read books—Susan “casts” and “directs” the novel—and experience films. The structure also permits a meditation on how a (once) intimately involved man and woman at odds may differently process their bloody mutual history—their war of love.
Nocturnal Animals was critically well-received, but it underperformed at the box office and failed to make a strong cultural impact. Yet the film’s emotional and sexual dynamics, and the casting of Jake Gyllenhaal as the male lead opposite Adams, resonates beyond its commercial career. It’s a movie that speaks agonizingly to the post-feminist crisis in masculinity.
The sour saga of a man’s hateful revenge upon his ex-wife, Nocturnal Animals pessimistically postulates that men who do not affiliate themselves with the old hegemonic phallic order—which for millennia had downgraded women and brutalized men and women alike—are ill-equipped to deal with female self-actualization.
In the film’s final act, the passive fictitious hero’s resort to violence, which might have been expected to regenerate him in accordance with the American model of conquest, proves as self-abnegating and ultimately destructive as his masochistic love of the woman he has lost.
Susan is the depressed owner of a successful Los Angeles art gallery that exhibits shallow work she despises. Her businessman husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is aloof and unfaithful. From her first husband, Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), Susan receives a proof of a novel he has written and dedicated to her. Nineteen years previously, when she last saw Edward, she had terminated her pregnancy and deserted him for Hutton; her and Hutton’s grown daughter Samantha has moved out.
As she reads Edward’s novel, Susan visualizes him as its protagonist, Tony, who is driving his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) in the Texas wilds at night; Susan imagines that Laura looks like her and India like Samantha. Their car is forced off the road by Ray (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Lou, and Turk, mythic rural degenerates like those in John Ford’s Wagon Master (1950), John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), and Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms (2003). Ray supervises the kidnapping of Laura and India. A day or two later, Tony and the detective Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) discover the women’s desecrated corpses.
Shocked by what she is reading, Susan breaks off to recall how she and Edward, formerly Texas college friends, kindled their love in New York. Though Susan was warned by her cynical Texas socialite mother (Laura Linney) that Edward was too weak and romantic to become a worthy provider, Susan married him. The marriage foundered after a few years—less because Susan, an aspiring artist, sought material comforts, than because she had been inculcated with her mom’s mercenary values.
Gradually, Susan gleans that Edward has written a poisonous allegory of their relationship. That word “weak” resounds throughout, as well as in Susan’s recollection of her and Edward’s breakup. During Tony and Andes’s vigilante mission to find and punish the killers, Tony howls that he “should have stopped it”—Edward’s veiled admission that he should have been man enough to have rescued his marriage, enabling Susan to give birth to their child.
In suggesting that Susan is to blame both for her and Edward’s unhappiness, and in making her pay for having an abortion and asserting her independence, Nocturnal Animals is disturbingly misogynistic. But a “pathetic male” reading is also legitimate. Gyllenhaal’s Edward/Tony is the acme of a slight, wan, nonaggressive male, in marked contrast to Taylor-Johnson’s swaggering incarnation of warped machismo. As characters in Edward’s novel, Tony and Ray symbolize his superego and id, respectively. Without will or self-determination beyond his commitment to writing, Edward is a natural victim. He resents the charge of “weakness” because it rings true to him.
He is also malicious. In writing his revenge novel and sending it to Susan, he has calculatedly devoted time, energy, and craft to inflicting mental pain on her. When Susan observes that Edward has not found another partner in the years since she last saw him, it’s clear that the trauma of Susan’s leaving him for another man played into Edward’s pre-existing psychological stasis. It’s as if he is a modern male equivalent of Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham.
Though Susan, a self-made woman of the 2010s, stands in marked contrast to, say, Don Draper’s wives in the 1960s-set television drama series Mad Men (2007-15), the fact remains that men and women form masochistic attachments irrespective of social movements, their fates determined more by their psychological development than external experiences.
When Susan’s mother warns Susan that she will turn out to be like her, she bitterly remarks it’s because all daughters turn into their mothers. Don’s pathological compulsion to seduce women stems from the trauma of living with his mother in a brothel when she was a lowly prostitute during the Depression.
Edward’s losing Susan to the alpha-male Hutton and his autobiographical evocation of Tony as boyishly weak hint that, as a 3-to-6-year-old boy, he was unable to resolve his Oedipus complex. His novel maps out his unconscious. It ends with Tony tremulously holding a handgun (substitute phallus) on Ray and shooting him dead, though not before Ray slashes a blade across Tony’s face, blinding him. Tony dies the following morning.
In the Greek myth and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Oedipus unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother. When years later he discovers the truth, he blinds himself. Since in Edward’s novel Ray is the instrument of Tony’s blinding—his symbolic castration—it follows that the sexually demonic Ray is a shadow of both Edward’s (unseen) father during his childhood, and Hutton, the potent rival who stole Susan from Edward and fathered a child with her.
In the sequence in which Ray bullies Tony prior to abducting Laura and India, his mockery symbolically emasculates Tony—he asks him if he has a vagina and if he’s got a tampon to staunch his bleeding nose. Edward’s anguished identification of himself with his fictitious alter ego Tony hints that, as an infant confronted by the mythic specter of his emasculating father, he regressed to the pre-Oedipal stage by identifying with his mother instead of intensifying his identification with his father—Freud’s “normal” route to subjective male authority. His unconscious feminizing identification with his mother partially explains his conscious 20-year fixation on Susan and the poison that flows from it.
Gyllenhaal’s casting in the film defines the current white male identity crisis as represented in Hollywood movies. Not all contemporary English-language leading men have been prepared to burrow into damaged male psyches. Alongside Gyllenhaal, those who have include Tom Cruise (once, in 1999’s Magnolia), Joaquin Phoenix, Bradley Cooper, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Ben Affleck, Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Fassbender, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Sarsgaard, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Of these, Phoenix, Eisenberg, Ruffalo, and Sarsgaard could have viably been cast as Edward/Tony.
Nocturnal Animals’ Oedipal schema links it to the many Freudian thrillers produced during the classic film noir era (1941-57). Gyllenhaal was 35 when he starred in Nocturnal Animals. Imagine that it had been greenlighted in the Hollywood of 1935, when the leading or emergent male stars between the ages of 24 and 42 included Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Franchot Tone, Robert Taylor, Joel McCrea, and Randolph Scott. Only Tone could have plausibly been cast as a Depression-Era Edward/Tony. In the Hollywood cinema of the 1930s, “men were men” in the strictly traditional sense.
Moving forward 10 years to see who might have played Edward/Tony in 1945, when World War II was drawing to a close and film noir was at its height, the options might have increased marginally. Stewart, Robert Ryan, Joseph Cotten, Robert Walker, and John Dall could have espoused Edward/Tony’s “weakness.”
Robinson—past 50 when his bourgeois dupes fell for Joan Bennett’s spider woman in Fritz Lang’s A Woman at the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945)—would have made an older Edward/Tony. This is in keeping with the spirit of noirs in which sluggish older husbands like those played by Tom Powers in Double Indemnity (1944) and Cecil Kellaway in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) were disposed of by the anti-heroine’s virile younger lovers, played respectively by Fred MacMurray and John Garfield.
The star of that era most likely to have breathed life into Edward/Tony was Stewart, who revealed in 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life (made when he was suffering PTSD following air combat service) his readiness to channel male neuroses. In his forties and at 50—in his Anthony Mann Westerns and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958)—Stewart radiated obsessiveness, selfishness, irascibility, despair, castration anxiety, and various phobias.
Non-neurotic men are hard to find in film noir’s broad swathe. The dominant male figures in Citizen Kane (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity, Laura (1944), The Killers (1946), The Postman Always Rings Twice, Out of the Past (1947), The Lady From Shanghai (1947), In a Lonely Place (1950), Sunset Boulevard (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Touch of Evil (1957), and Vertigo—as good a canonical list as there is—manifest, in different combinations, greed, treachery, lust, cruelty, narcissism, paranoia, corruptibility, vanity, passivity, and exploitability. Excepting Bogart’s selfish Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Ralph Meeker’s brutal Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly, the strongest among them can seem as weak as a kitten.
The bigger point is that many of the leading actors of the noir era axiomatically played unstable or vulnerable men, though not to the extent that they risked the integrity of their star images. As well as Bogart, Robinson, Ryan, and MacMurray, actors like Garfield, Orson Welles, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Dana Andrews, Alan Ladd, and Burt Lancaster were among the male stars who played noir heroes supposedly damaged or destroyed by their interactions with those women who are generally squashed together under the femme fatale umbrella.
It is an umbrella full of holes. Since the late 1970s, feminist film scholars have championed the agency of women in film noirs, drawing attention to their needs as sexually active, self-determining individuals in the socially destabilized America of World War II and the post-war years. Understanding the trajectory of women as a social group during this period is germane to understanding that of men, and the historical development of their relative roles in the ensuing seventy years.
Citing Virginia Woolf’s statement “It is far harder to kill a phantom than a reality” (from her speech “Professions for Women”), Julie Grossman, the author of Rethinking the Femme Fatale in Film Noir: Ready for Her Closeup (2009), identifies the femme fatale “as a phantom, an illusion and myth…that feeds cultural gender fantasies.”
Under these terms, the femme fatale of film noirs is as pernicious a patriarchal construct as that which proliferated in the gynephobic decadent art of the late 18th and early 19th centuries—the art of Medusas, Salomes, Lamia, succubi, virgin vampires, and lustful snake-entwined nudes.
The widespread sexual experimentation by both sexes during the war years led to an increase in divorces. The femme fatale gained currency in film noir after the war when many servicemen returned from Europe and the Pacific to find that their wives and girlfriends had left them for other men.
This is a prime cause of the disorientation of war hero Johnny Morrison (Ladd) in the Raymond Chandler-scripted The Blue Dahlia (1946) and that of the World War II Naval veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012). In Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, Bogart plays the screenwriter Dix Steele, whose Air Force service during WWII has exacerbated his paranoia and hair-trigger temper; his inability to control his violent rages destroys his new romance with the actress (Gloria Grahame) who loves him.
For Johnny, Freddie, Dix, and for Jeff Bailey (Mitchum) in Out of the Past—though his war service isn’t mentioned—as for the Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), the alienating effect of war has exaggerated women’s feminine “otherness.” It is in the context of their relationships with women that these five emotionally unmoored men drift into turbulent seas. The women’s governing of their own sexual lives doesn’t make them femme fatales, however, except in the heated imaginations of the men who lose them (Johnny, Dix, Jeff) or never had them in the first place (Freddie, Travis).
While acknowledging that “feminist film critics have long recognized the ideological power” of the archetype, Grossman notes “the striking extent to which femme fatales—seductresses whose desires and malevolence are seemingly unmotivated—don’t, in fact, exist in noir movies in which so-called bad women appear.
“Instead film noir’s lead female characters predominantly demonstrate complex psychological and social identity, resisting the spectator’s habit (traced in criticism and cultural responses) of seeing past her as opaque or ambiguous (thus a screen on which to project male fears and desires) or of fixing on her as the thing, a dangerous body, to be labeled and tamed by social roles and institutions.”
Grossman re-evaluates the so-called femme fatale in terms of exigency, calling attention to the many women in film noirs “who are shown to be limited by, even trapped in, social worlds presented as psychotically gendered. Exigency for most so-called femme fatales moves these women to express—in aggressive physical and verbal gestures—an insistence on independence, which is then misread as the mark of the femme fatale. Such myths are propelled by the culture now both by film criticism and popular culture.
“Indeed,” Grossman continues, “critics have settled in their discussion of women in noir on the few female characters who conform to the notion of the quintessential ‘femme fatale’ (as she is represented by Phyllis Dietrichson [Double Indemnity], Kathie Moffett [Out of the Past], and Brigid O’Shaughnessy [The Maltese Falcon], who then define the category. This has two significant consequences: first, these few really bad women draw all the attention; second the construction of a false binary between femmes fatales and other women means that the large majority of female characters in noir, whose roles are inflected (multifaceted and interesting), are placed into the category of femme fatale without close attention paid to the complexity of the character.”
Grossman draws attention to Lana Turner’s Cora Papadakis in The Postman Always Ring Twice, whose reputation as a quintessential femme fatale is unearned given how “desperately confined” she is in an unhappy marriage to the older husband who intends to squirrel her away from California to Northern Canada to help him take care of his disabled sister.
Similarly, in Human Desire (1954), Vicki Buckley (Gloria Grahame) is trapped in a marriage to a murderous, jealous drunk who (albeit inadvertently) prostitutes her to save his railwayman’s job. It is little wonder that she inveigles one of his colleagues, Glenn Ford’s handsome Korean War vet, to help liberate her. Because Grahame appeared in eight film noirs, she is frequently labeled as a “bad girl of film noir”—the title of a book about her. Grahame’s character in Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) is sexually morbid, yet the only noir in which she plays a woman who is unambiguously evil is Sudden Fear (1954).
As a paradigmatic actress in noir, her characters in the likes of Crossfire (1947), In a Lonely Place (1950), The Big Heat (1953), and Naked Alibi (1954) are—though no angels—acquainted with men who are violent, possessive, twisted, or perverse. In Crossfire, The Big Heat, and Naked Alibi, as in Human Desire, if not in In a Lonely Place, Grahame gravitates toward men who are either decent or strong.
Film noir’s notional femme fatale translates, then, to a woman who needs to liberate herself from different types of male oppression. This is especially true of the late 1940s when, as Stephanie Coontz observes in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s (2011), an anti-feminist counter-offensive successfully restored traditional gender roles, reversing the gains women had made during the war.
By 1947, three million women—the Rosie the Riveter generation—had been laid off from wartime work, Coontz reports. The post-war divorce boom gave way to the multiplying of marriages among young women and men and the migration of women back to the kitchen and the nursery prompted by the romanticization of the nuclear family.
Grossman’s analysis of women in film noir applies equally well to the positions women sought to free themselves from in reaction to feminism’s fallow 1950s: “labeled and tamed by social roles and institutions,” “limited by, even trapped in, social worlds presented as psychotically gendered.” These are the conditions that fomented female “exigency” and “an insistence on independence” in the mid-to-late 1960s, following the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique.
Whenever there is a shifting of the socio-cultural gears, different groups are forced to alter their behaviors. While World War II can scarcely be compared with Second Wave Feminism, each brought about revolutionary changes that brought women closer to achieving their inalienable human rights while putting the patriarchal nose out of joint.
One of the legacies has been the continued growth of feminist cinema, especially through the emergence of women filmmakers via the independent film movement. Hollywood has meanwhile commercially exploited the “strong woman” archetype since the late 1980s. Post-feminist films of recent years range from those that champion female warriors and less glamorous heroines, whether in exotic or dystopian settings or on the domestic front, and those that highlight the fragility and anxiety of men who cannot adjust to female expressions of power and freedom.
A contentious international festival of such movies might include: Morvern Callar (2002), Hard Candy (2005), Descent (2007), Bridesmaids (2011), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), The Hunger Games (2012-15), Frozen (2013), Under the Skin (2013), Gone Girl (2014), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Lucy (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), Carol (2015), Anomalisa (2015), The Keeping Room (2015), Elle (2016), and The Love Witch (2016).
There are, of course, checks and balances, films that demonstrate angst-ridden masculinity or different forms of misogyny, such as Antichrist (2009)—indeed, anything directed by Lars Von Trier—the Fatal Attraction clone Obsessed (2009), and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Michael Douglas and Bill Murray are foremost among the actors who have played baby boomers forced to negotiate midlife crises in the wake of social upheavals, including the feminist revolution.
Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Lost in Translation (2003), The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004), and Broken Flowers (2005) are angst-ridden rites-of-passage movies. They require Murray’s depressed characters to work through the disorienting misery of liminality in order to resolve unfinished psychological business, forge fresh identities, and discover new purposes in life—the last they will need.
In Masculinity and Film Performance: Male Angst in Contemporary American Cinema, Donna Peberdy describes how Murray’s use of motionlessness and the specific quality of his physiognomy have made him “synonymous with the angst besetting middle-aged men at the start of the 21st century. It would seem that Murray has so successfully embodied male angst that he has become the man-in-crisis; the line between man and performer has become increasingly blurred as if Murray himself is experiencing a midlife crisis. Jennifer Senior for The New York Times, for example, posed the question, ‘Does a culture even need a definition of burnout when it has Bill Murray?’”
Peberdy goes on to compare the unsettling image of Cary Grant falling through space with a shocked look on his face on the poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959) with that of the kimono-clad Murray slumped on the end of a hotel bed, projecting “an air of melancholy and lethargy … eyes hollow and lifeless,” on the poster for Lost in Translation.
“Both films feature comedy actors in their fifties,” Peberdy writes. “Both films are about a man’s struggle to mature and take on responsibility. Both characters experience an identity crisis…and are disoriented by their position in the culture. The image of male angst that is presented by each poster, however, is entirely different. In 1959, Grant’s depiction of masculine instability—consisting of extended limbs and wide facial expression—is animated, exaggerated, and dramatic. Murray, by contrast, appears languid and passive.”
Though Peberdy makes this comparison to illustrate the difference in performative representations of male angst 44 years apart, it is blurred by the direct quoting of the Grant image in the animated opening credit sequence of Mad Men, which shows the silhouetted Don Draper falling down the face of the Madison Avenue skyscraper in which he works.
That he is floating rather than plunging lends the sequence an oneiric quality—it suggests a nightmare, not an act of suicide. Thirty-five in 1960, when Mad Men starts, Don enters his crisis years twenty years earlier than Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill, but as urbane advertising executives linked in turmoil—Roger’s is visited on him through external events—they are secret sharers. They are also descendants of Odysseus, literature’s most famous negotiator of a midlife crisis.
A phallocentric psychodrama if ever there were one, Mad Men was influenced not only by North by Northwest but by The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 masterpiece about the ingrained misogyny and priapism in New York office culture. Matthew Weiner’s long-running series amounts to an anthropological study of patriarchal privilege during and after the President Kennedy and Camelot years. It is not, though, an endorsement of it.
Don is a visionary advertising creative director, a charlatan, a chronic womanizer—and a polarizing figure in popular culture. On one hand, he invokes the pride and envy of neurotic heterosexual male viewers for his serial seductions. If he also invokes the lust of straight women viewers (ardent feminists no doubt among them), he primarily connotes the modern-day deficit in male confidence in feminism’s wake—the need for men to shore up, symbolically, their sense of self-worth in the context of increasing female power in the bedroom and the boardroom.
On the other hand, Don is a satyr who destroys his family, his career, and nearly himself. The moment his adolescent daughter catches him having sex with a mistress guarantees she will spend many of her future evenings as an adult on an analyst’s couch.
Don is saved from perdition only by his existential quest and peaceful resolution of his final crisis, which suggests he may absolve himself of his need for multiple affairs (if not for spontaneously creating inspired ads). Having started out as a seducer in the Jack Kennedy vein, he arrives, apparently, at a place of equanimity and comparative isolation in November 1970.
Don’s journey through the 1960s can, therefore, be interpreted as an allegory of male awakening that runs parallel to the Women’s Liberation Movement. Central to this is his codependent relationship with and Platonic love of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who starts out as his secretary but rises to become his second in command and almost his professional equal. Mad Men also traces the ascent of Don and Peggy’s colleague Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). Having been prostituted, literally, by their agency, Joan eventually launches her own business.
There are many masculinities and many ways of limiting them. (The heterosexual slant of this essay has not, for example, allowed for a consideration of gay culture.) The 1930s Hollywood varieties of manliness—rugged, hearty, energetic, gentlemanly, even genteel—are a far cry from that incarnated by actors like Gyllenhaal in Nocturnal Animals, Phoenix in The Master, Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, and Hamm in Mad Men.
These world-class neurotics resonate, however, with the strung-out, hapless, or fatalistic men-in-crisis in 1940s and early 1950s film noir. Like Gyllenhaal’s Tony, Phoenix’s Freddie Quell has been unable to accept that the woman he loved found another man; his falling in with Lancaster Dodd’s Scientology-like cult is attributable as much to losing his girlfriend as to the PTSD that resulted from his World War II combat experience.
At the start of Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper’s bipolar Pat Solitano has returned to his parents’ home after spending eight months in a mental health facility; he was hospitalized after viciously beating his wife’s lover. His redemptive relationship with Jennifer Lawrence’s troubled but dynamic young widow Tiffany demands that he accepts non-judgmentally her recent promiscuity, which had been triggered by losing her husband.
Tony, Freddie, and Pat initially, cannot cope with female independence and assertiveness any more than could Edward G. Robinson in The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, Glenn Ford in Gilda (1946), Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, or Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1943) and In a Lonely Place. The hard-wired vestiges of Oedipally originated jealousy and low self-esteem cannot be effaced by a half-century of feminist consciousness-raising.
While feminism has played its part in setting a limit on what passes as traditional masculinity, machismo will naturally survive in movies whenever violence is called for. In the current socio-political climate, however, patriarchal aggression poses as great a risk as simulated fighting and killing to the reputation of 21st-century manhood—which must continue to realign itself as a desirable, humane ideal in the post-feminist era. Men owe to it themselves and to women to ensure that the reach of masculinity is not limited by misogyny or the boasts of presidents-elect who extol casual sexual abuse as a perk of celebrity.
This story is part of the Culture Trip Special: Limits collection.