Nocturnal Animals explained: What does the ending mean for Edward and Susan?
Nocturnal Animals spoilers follow.
Based on Austin Wright's novel Tony and Susan, the psychological 2016 drama Nocturnal Animals, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams, is known for an ambiguous ending that leaves it up to the viewer to draw their own conclusions – although there are some clues throughout as to what it all means, and how it ends.
The movie introduces us to LA art gallery owner Susan (Adams), who is lonely in her work and also in her marriage to unfaithful businessman Hutton. A package arrives for her that contains a manuscript from her first husband, Edward (Gyllenhaal) whom she hasn't spoken to in nearly 20 years. It's a book called Nocturnal Animals that he has written and dedicated to her. With it is a note saying he will be in Los Angeles and would like to meet with her.
Susan begins to read the novel, and the events in the dark and gripping book are played out on screen – it is the story of a man named Tony (also played by Gyllenhaal), who is on a trip with his wife Laura and teenage daughter India when they are run off the road in West Texas by three men.
Those men – Ray, Lou and Turk – kidnap Laura and India and leave Tony by the roadside. He manages to wander to a house and contact the police – however, when Tony and Detective Andes (Michael Shannon) discover an abandoned shack as part of their search for his family, they find the bodies of India and Laura there, raped and murdered.
As she becomes absorbed by Edward's novel, Susan remembers how she and Edward met and how their relationship and marriage came to be, despite the objections of Susan's mother, who warned her that Edward would not be able to give her the status and stability she would need.
She looks back on how she treated him, making him feel that she thought he was weak for supposedly lacking the drive to achieve his goal of being a writer, and her memories reveal to us that she not only cheated on Edward with Hutton (who she went on to marry), she also aborted Edward's baby that she was carrying.
The two stories then build to a climax as Susan realises she is being cheated on by Hutton, and in the novel's story Detective Andes gives Tony the opportunity to avenge the death of his wife and child.
Read on for a breakdown of the gripping drama. And be warned, there are some major spoilers ahead.
Nocturnal Animals ending explained: What happens to Edward and Susan?
Susan continues to read Edward's novel.
In the story, one of the three men who abducted and murdered Laura and India has been killed in a robbery, but two – Ray and Lou – have yet to face justice for their crime.
Detective Andes reveals he is dying of cancer, and his wish is to bring the case to an end, outside of the law, if Tony agrees. The pair abduct Ray and Lou, but while Lou is shot dead when he attempts to flee, Ray manages to escape.
Tony tracks Ray down to the shack where his wife and daughter were killed and confronts him with a gun. Ray calls him weak and Tony fires the gun, shooting him in the chest, but Ray manages to hit Tony in the face with a fire poker, causing him to collapse to the ground.
He wakes up a few hours later, unable to see. Stumbling around, he realises Ray has died during the night of his wound, so an emotionless Tony takes his gun and staggers out of the shack. He fires his gun in the air – presumably to let Andes know where he is – and then falls to the ground. He rolls onto the gun, accidentally causing it to go off, and he dies.
Shocked by the ending of the novel, Susan replies to Edward's email that asks her to suggest a time and place where they can meet while he is in Los Angeles.
She gets ready – taking off her wedding ring – and goes to a restaurant to meet him. In the movie's final scene, Susan waits alone in the restaurant for hours, but Edward never shows up.
Nocturnal Animals ending: what does it mean?
So why doesn't Edward meet Susan in the restaurant at the end of the movie?
To answer that question you need to consider that one of the main themes of the movie is revenge. Edward's novel is about Tony seeking revenge on the men who killed his family, and there are hints in the 'real life' parts of the movie that this is a pertinent theme too.
At one point, Susan sees a piece of art in her gallery that she doesn't remember, that spells out the word 'Revenge' (which is kind of a big clue), and when she first receives Edward's manuscript, she gets a paper cut from it – an indication that the book is meant to hurt her.
Edward's book is about a man's family – his wife and child – being taken away from him, as Susan takes herself and their unborn baby away from him in real life.
Writing it is his way of exacting revenge – as is his decision not to turn up to the restaurant. He wants Susan to feel lonely and abandoned, as he did 20 years ago when she walked away from him and married Hutton.
There are no real winners in the story, however. In Edward's novel, Tony gets no satisfaction from Ray's death, as he will never be able to get back his family, so he really has nothing left to live for now his vengeance is over.
Equally, Edward himself is no better off – he may have exacted revenge on Susan but the obsession with their past relationship that has fuelled his novel means he is still haunted by those ghosts, despite having completed his book.
So is it possible the former spouses ever meet again?
In Austin Wright's original novel Tony and Susan, which the movie is based on, there is one final addition to the story. After being stood up by Edward, Susan writes a note of criticism about the book which she throws away, and she then writes a kinder one that she sends, saying she would like to tell him her thoughts in person – if he would like to hear them. So perhaps one day they meet again, after all.
Nocturnal Animals is available to stream on Lionsgate+ and rent on Prime Video and Apple TV+.
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