Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 56 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 6; Sex 5/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
The heart knows its own bitterness,
and no stranger shares its joy.
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;
for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
Writer-director Tom Ford adapted the screenplay from Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan, which contains a novel within a novel, the title of which gives its name to this film. 19 years before the events in the film, Susan (Amy Adams) and Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), both from Texas, were respectively, an aspiring artist and a writer living in Manhattan. However, she had judged her work so harshly that she gave it up to become an art dealer. Worse, she also harshly judged Edward’s first novel, calling it a failure. This led to a series of quarrels, her affair, and thus their splitting up.
The film introduces Susan during the opening credits at the end of a sequence of mostly nude, over-weight models dancing and posturing to raucous music, which we see is one of her art installations at her posh L.A. gallery. A room-full of ostentatious phonies have come to see and be seen, talking a lot of blather.
Susan lives in an ultra-modern house with husband Walker (Armie Hammer), a smooth-talking businessman. It is apparent that she is not happy despite her luxurious life, Walker having not even bothered to drop in on her big show earlier that day. He says that he had a meeting and is now leaving for New York City. Later, when he phones her from a New York hotel, a gaffe reveals that he is being unfaithful to her.
Susan was surprised to receive a package that contains the galleys of a novel written by Edward, the same title as the film—and the book is dedicated to her. Because of her insomnia, Edward had often called her a nocturnal animal. A letter with the manuscript informs her that he will be in L.A. that weekend and would like to reconnect with her. Now that Walker is away, she settles in to read the book.
Susan is quickly drawn in as she reads the story of a man named Tony traveling through west Texas at night with his wife Laura (Isla Fisher) and teenaged daughter India (Ellie Bamber). They are waylaid by two cars of three rednecks, two of whom kidnap the two women while Tony is forced to drive off with the third along a dirt road far from the highway. He manages to escape and hike on foot back to the main road and eventually to contact the sheriff’s office.
Susan is deeply moved by the novel, and in the scenes from it she imagines that Tony looks like her former husband. Calling him weak and untalented, she had left him for Walker. The novel continues to unfold, Tony connecting to a jaded deputy named Bobby (Michael Shannon). With his help, they find Tony’s wife and daughter, sprawled nude upon an old couch tossed outdoors. Both are dead. Adding to his anguish, the medical examination reveals that India also had been raped. Through Bobby’s sleuthing the murderers are caught, but despite Tony’s IDing the three, it looks like the three might escape justice. This is when Bobby, about to retire because he has terminal cancer, suggests…and the already dark and brutal novel dips even further into violence. Troy and Bobby also act like nocturnal animals, the kind that stalk and dispatch their prey in the night.
The film moves back and forth between the dark novel, Susan’s unsatisfactory present life, and her fond memories of her first meeting with Edward, both having left Texas to come to New York, and their short marriage that ended with her betrayal following arguments about her overly critical views of his writing and dream of working in a bookstore and writing a novel each year. One of his last retorts especially stung her, he accusing her of turning into her mother—Susan had once described her as “Republican, conservative, racist, bigoted, and narcissistic.” From the scenes in which we see Mom (Laura Linney), this appears to be an accurate assessment—she had been opposed to her marrying Edward because she thought him a class beneath them.
Susan is struck by the fact that Edward describes the murdered wife as having the same color as her hair, red. The husband Tony is weak in his response to the three killers, just as she had once accused Edward of being weak. Is the book a means for her ex-husband to exact revenge on her?
Anyway, Susan emails Edward that she thinks the novel is brilliant and that she would gladly meet with him. As the film builds to this climactic encounter, we wonder if their old flame can be rekindled. Has she learned her lesson? Is she capable of change—in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots?” Some will be puzzled (at first) by Tom Ford’s answer to this, others upset, and still others might exclaim, “Yeah!”
The film will prove too violent for some tastes, but as a character study of a person who gave up her dreams too readily and accepted the shallow values of her parents, it is a gem. No inspiration here, just a modern morality tale for those who like the old quotation, “Revenge is a dish best eaten cold.”
This review with a set of questions will be in the Jan. 2017 issue of VP.