Did I just pay to support an anti-abortion film? Nocturnal Animals and Tom Ford’s gender politics

Anonymous contributor

K: ‘Fancy going to the cinema this weekend?’

Me: ‘oo yeah.’

K: ‘What do you want to see?’

Me: ‘Fantastic beasts is out as it will have monsters in it, I do want to see I, Daniel Blake but could do with less social realism, how about Nocturnal Animals?’

K: ‘So we can just look at beautiful people instead? Done. Plus it’s got good reviews.’

And it was with this conversation that my partner and I went to the cinema on a Sunday to escape Trump, Brexit, Farage, Aleppo, and celebrity deathwatch 2016 for a couple of hours. What followed upon exiting the cinema (SPOILER ALERT! do not read on if you want to watch Nocturnal Animals without plot spoilers!!):

K: ‘Did you enjoy that?’

Me: ‘I did, it was scary though, I was surprised by that. Gosh it just played on everyone’s big fears didn’t it? Rape, isolation, protecting the ones you love. And why do you think he didn’t turn up at the end? And do you think what happened in the book happened?’

K: ‘He was never going to turn up and no, I thought the whole events in the book were an allegory for her aborting his child. He lost a child and partner in his real life, he loses a child and partner in the book he writes. He feels brutalised so decides to brutalise her by writing the book.’

SH: ‘Bloody hell, you’re right, but aborting a child is not equivalent to the brutal rape and murder of a child, how is it I never get films?!’

K: ‘Oh really, I thought it was obvious. Did you not get the big ‘REVENGE’ painting placement as a signpost?’

Me: ‘Er. No. What do you fancy for dinner?’

Two days later and I am no longer thinking about my dinner but still thinking about Nocturnal Animals. Here are the good bits about the film: it is beautifully shot, really well acted (even Jake Gyllenhaal who I’ve always thought was a bit over-rated), and sustains the suspense and nerves the whole way through. Michael Shannon is great in it. As the dialogue above suggests, I left the cinema thinking it was a good film, not what I expected, but a good film. However after my partner pointed out the obvious I am struck by the possibility that I just paid to watch an anti-abortion film set in the US at the very time women’s reproductive rights in the US are being threatened.

My reading of the film is it suggests the kidnap, rape and murder of a man’s wife and child and his subsequent revenge is equivalent to the separation of a man from his partner and her termination of an unwanted pregnancy that he does not know about. The character Edward lives the latter and writes a book of the former that he then dedicates to the partner who aborted his child. The subtext is woman brutalises man by leaving him and aborting his child, so he brutalises her by telling the story of the loss of a wife and child in the most terrifying, fearful and emotive way possible. My reading of the film is it suggests that the termination of a pregnancy is equivalent to the rape and murder of a teenager. Nocturnal Animals is an anti-abortion film.

Given this is quite a strong statement, I looked at some reviews of the film. All reviews mention revenge and terror. Some reviews muse on the point Tom Ford is trying to make. But none reflect on the way in which the film suggests equivalence to the two main narratives of the film and the purpose of the revenge. Perhaps unsurprisingly none of the reviews speak to the abortion because it is a major plot spoiler (sorry readers) but there is no reflection on the equivalence of the two major events the plot is organised around. Film critics have praised the film and given it all the stars; feminist blogs such as Jezebel have criticised it for the focus on aesthetics over content, but no mention of the big A.

To make a film that provokes a direct comparison between rape and murder of a teenager with the termination of a pregnancy, at a time when reproductive rights are being challenging in the US, is deeply concerning. The cinematography and suspense deserves the praise it’s getting, but this to me is not enough to buy the silence of critics over a pertinent political issue. Either I have completely missed the point (entirely possible, as the above dialogue suggests), all film critics are anti-abortion (unlikely), or no-one is calling this problematic element out. Tom Ford stresses the importance of aesthetics, but as he no doubt knows all too well, aesthetics intersect with politics to shock, traumatise, and transcend. In Nocturnal Animals, Ford uses aesthetics to frame abortion as a brutal act against the male that makes the audience engage with the act as equivalent to the rape and murder of a teenage child. Ford has used aesthetics to produce the anti-abortion film of 2016.

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