Ralph Sepe’s review published on Letterboxd :
Nocturnal Animals has garnered much critical acclaim and is one of my favorite films of all time. There are many reasons why this film has left such a profound impact on me. The cast is fantastic, the set and costume design is gorgeous, the score is beautiful and the story is very powerful. The film is essentially a revenge story framed in another revenge story chronicling how Jake Gyllenhaal's character, Edward Sheffield, sends a manuscript to his ex-wife Susan Morrow played by Amy Adams. The manuscript tells the story of how an innocent family man gets revenge on three redneck rapists who killed his wife and daughter.
First we must find connection between the real life relationship between Edward and Susan and Edwards fictional novel Nocturnal Animals. In the start of the film Susan gets Edwards manuscript in the mail with a small note reading "I've written a novel that will be published in the spring. It was different than the kind of things I wrote when we were together. In the end you left me with the inspiration I needed to write from the heart." The novel is even dedicated to him. The novel follows an average family man named Tony Hastings on a family road trip to West Texas. On the way they're stopped by three lawbreakers Ray Marcus, Lou, and Turk who proceed to kidnap, rape and kill his wife and daughter. Tony then teams up with a local detective Bobby Andes to find the criminals and get his revenge. Susan becomes consumed with the novel. At first we're not sure why but we can only assume, since the novel is indeed inspired by Susan, that she has some personal connection to the story. Perhaps the story is based on their life before they separated. At this point in the film we don't quite know how their relationship ended and it can be inferred that this series of events is what led to the end of their relationship. At this point in the film we also don't know that the fictional wife and daughter characters will die. The reason this "fictional" sequence works as well as it does is cause we don't know it's fictional yet. We think it might be real until the point where the fictional wife and daughter die. This clearly isn't true because Susan is alive and well and so is Susan's daughter which she calls shortly after reading this part of the manuscript. We are then left to wonder, what does this story have to do with Susan, and why is she so compelled by it?
Another interesting thing about this film is how we continue to be invested in the fictional revenge story. Although the story is totally false for the most part we as an audience are still invested in it. But why? Why are we invested in a story that the characters in the film know is fictional. First of all, the characters don't act as if it's fictional. Susan is in awe of the novel, completely compelled by it. She takes it seriously and as a result so do we. Also, we as an audience did not know the story was fictional for the first twenty minutes. It is not 'till we get to the death of Tony's wife and daughter that we discover the story isn't true but the audience is too far in to be left hanging. We like the character of Tony, we sympathize with his situation and we are invested. We want to see how it ends. The final reason, which is also the reason Susan is so emotionally invested in the story, is because it mirrors reality. Not a literal depiction of how their relationship ended but a metaphorical story about how Susan, her mother and her current husband broke his heart, killed his child and destroyed his dream of having a family. The story Edward wrote may be literally false but so is the film we are watching. In fact so is every story, every novel, every film we ever watch. Nocturnal Animals plays with our expectations and shows us how a story can convey the creators emotions through fictional characters, stories and settings. As Edward says in the film "Nobody writes about anybody but themselves." The film juxtaposes the difference between revenge in fiction and revenge in reality. Tony's story deals with this very powerful tale of revenge while the real story is Susan at work, at a boring party, sitting at home, etc.
The casting of everyone in the fictional story is very deliberate. Each character in Edwards fictional story mirrors either a person in his life or an idea. Tony's wife and daughter are not based on anyone in Edwards actually life, at least not as far as we know. Tony's wife and daughter instead represent an idea. The family Tony had until they were abruptly taken away from him by Ray, Lou and Turk. They represent the family Edward could've had before the idea of a family was taken away from him by Susan. As a result the casting of Isla Fisher in the role of Tony's wife is a clear sign that Susan is not that character. If that were the case Amy Adams would be cast as his fictional wife. Jake Gyllenhaal is cast as both Edward and his fictional character Tony because Tony is a cipher for Edward. Tony's wife is not a cipher for Amy Adams so she is not cast in that part. Who is Amy Adams in the story then?
Amy Adams is actually one of the three rednecks. She is mostly likely Ray played by Aaron Taylor Johnson. At first we don't realize this but the casting of someone who in no way resembles Amy Adams or her character is a great way of throwing the audience off. The two other rednecks, Lou and Turk, could represent the two other characters who led to the end of Susans and Edwards relationship, Susan's current husband Hutton Morrow and Susan's mother Anne Sutton. Firstly there's Susan's mother who kept convincing Susan that Edward was no good for her. He was too ignorant, too nice, and too sensitive. He's not ambitious or creative enough to make a successful novel or be a good husband. Then there is Hutton Morrow who is everything Susan's mother said she needed. He was rich, strong, handsome, a perfect husband. Once they
started seeing each other and it's revealed that Susan was pregnant with Edwards baby, Susan decides to have an abortion. Edward finds this out and it destroys him. Then there is Susan who is the final nail in the coffin. She dumped him, she lost interest in his art and she took away his child.
The one character that's hard to connect the dots with is Bobby Andes played by Michael Shannon. Bobby Andes is the detective that helps track down and arrest the three men that killed Tony's wife and daughter. The most likely possibility is that Bobby Andes is a cipher for Edwards father that had died when he was young. Edwards father is brought up multiple times throughout the film and this is done purposely to convey that Edwards never really had a father figure in his life. Edward never grew up with a man in the house so under the supervision of solely his mother he grew up to be more sensitive and soft. Not to say all women are soft and sensitive but it can be assumed that fathers usually discipline their sons to be tougher and harsher. This is not something Edward had in his life and saying that Edwards mother didn't enforce those ideas isn't that far fetched. In the story Bobby is the one that helps Tony undergo his transformation from a soft family man to a cold blooded killer. He is the figure Tony would've needed in his normal life to become less sensitive. It's Edwards sensitivity that led to his downfall and the end of his relationship with Susan.
Susan is unfulfilled in life despite the fact that she had everything she wanted when she was younger. She's a successful artist, she's famous, she has a successful husband but she still feels alone and she isn't satisfied with her work anymore. When her work is praised at the start of the film she says she isn't proud of it. To be more specific she says "it's junk. Total junk." It's made clear at the beginning of the film that Susan and Hutton's marriage is nearing it's end. Susan talks to her friend Alessia earlier in the film about how unfulfilled she is with Hutton and how she feels they want "different things". They also discuss how Susan never really had a great connection with Hutton and when Alessia asks Susan "Do you still love him?" Susan doesn't answer. Perhaps this is what draws her to the story Edward wrote. Not only does she find it compelling, she finds him compelling, and she is reminded of when she was happy, free, ambitious and full of life. More importantly it brings her back to when she was in love and had a real connection to another person. This is why after reading Edwards manuscript she decides to contact Edward once again and make plans to meet him at a restaurant.
This all builds to the climax when Edward and Susan finally meet for the first time since the end of their relationship. Before she goes to meet him she removes her fancy jewelry, her wedding ring especially, and wipes off her makeup signifying that she is done with the life she has led up to this point and is ready to begin again with Edward. She arrives at the restaurant and waits for him to arrive. She waits, and she waits, and she waits. Hours go by and then both her and the audience realize that he's never going to show up. And that was the point of the film. He hated her. He hated her for cheating on him, for taking away his child, for taking away his idea of a family and for not believing in him as an artist and as a husband. All this made him colder and more calculated just like her and he uses his talent to craft a story to convey how their relationship made him feel. Edward doesn't literally die like in his story but Edwards old self, the ignorant innocent artist has been destroyed. That's why it's important in the story that Tony shoots himself rather than have Ray do it. It wasn't Susan that decided to kill Edward, it was Edward that decided to kill Edward after all he had lost. This whole story was a way of Edward telling Susan that he is a great artist and he will hurt her with it. Perhaps if he had stayed with Edward she would be fulfilled in life. This was Edwards way of overcoming what had been done to him and telling her that his experience made him a stronger person and a stronger artist.
Edward's using the story of Tony to not only express and express the pain he felt at losing Susan but also fantasize about the revenge he would take on her, her husband and her mother. The novel is an act of catharsis.
In the end Susan ends up with nothing. She has all the fame and success she wanted earlier in her life but she gets no satisfaction from any of it. Her current husband is cheating on her with another woman, her mother is out of the picture, she has no one to love and no one that loves her back. Edward's novel gives her hope that there might still be someone who cares, someone that can fulfill her in life since nothing else does anymore. Edward gives her this glimmer of hope and then takes it away from her when he doesn't show up at the restaurant. It was the perfect revenge. Everything she had taken from him has now been taken from her. It's not until the very end of the film when you realize what the film was about and the reveal that this was a story of revenge is perhaps one of the most satisfying endings to a film I've seen in a long time. Nocturnal Animals sticks its landing and hits home it's point with grace and eloquence and it's in my opinion a near flawless film.