Nocturnal Animals and its Art

Deeper, layered films like Nocturnal Animals demand a second, if not a third, viewing for lots of reasons. Not least – in the case of Tom Ford’s 2016 neo-noir thriller – to fully appreciate what are some major artworks surrounding Amy Adams’ gallery owner Susan Morrow. It’s easy to miss some of them, which feels a bit criminal when they’ve been so painstakingly selected and ‘curated’, to add depth and context to the story.  (But come on, who has time to watch a film more than once in the middle of awards season!?)

Anyway, if you’ve seen Ford’s film, you might have caught a glimpse of some Jeff Koons, Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst.. to name a few of the more ‘popular’ artists. And an online article I Googled upon (an interview with Nocturnal Animals’ production designer Shane Valentino, by The Creators Project) shed some great insight into the logistics for getting them into the film – which by all accounts is no mean feat (check it out).

I try not to have the artwork used in the films I design just be set dressing. I feel they can always be another layer to help augment, illuminate, and articulate meaning. – Nocturnal Animals’ Production Designer, Shane Valentino

Of course being able to name drop Tom Ford doesn’t exactly harm negotiations, but let’s not underestimate the amount of work involved in getting multimillion masterpieces into a movie. If there’s one thing I learned from my time at Sotheby’s (as a fresh-faced digital producer), there are some serious egos in the art world that do rather reap satisfaction from making life difficult.

But that’s another story. Point is, I was grabbed by a certain painting that appears in the film (really strained to get a good look at this in the time it appears on screen) which, as I later learnt, is Richard Misrach‘s Desert Fire #153 (Man with Rifle) (main picture). I don’t pretend to know much about why I like any piece of art, but this one seduced me even in the brief moment I laid eyes on it. Its dream-like, surreal quality and thick, intoxicating atmosphere is unbelievably powerful and perfectly matched to what’s at the heart of this picture. Here’s what I learnt about this piece, the extraordinary talent that is Richard Misrach, and key works in this and other movies that you may or may not have missed!


Californian photographer Richard Misrach is clearly a rare talent. Now 67, he’s won a host of awards through his career, has been described as “the most interesting and original American photographer of his generation” (by the Wall Street Journal), and is probably best known for his depictions of the American West’s deserts and man’s impact on nature. His series of desert photographs – The Desert Cantos – is his longest-running, most ambitious project. If, like me, you were keen to see more – you can find more of his photography here. Or just ‘Google Images’ Richard Misrach.

Richard Misrach (Border Cantos)
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals – a still.

The desert … may serve better as the backdrop for the problematic relationship between man and the environment. The human struggle, the successes … both noble and foolish, are readily apparent in the desert. Symbols and relationships seem to arise that stand for the human condition itself.

– Richard Misrach (as quoted by the Los Angeles Times)


Desert Fire #153 (Man with Rifle), which appears in Nocturnal Animals is from his Desert Canto IV: The Fires (1984) and pictures two figures in a smoky, dry, sandy-hued desert, one man pointing a rifle at another at close range, whose face is turned towards the camera, wearing a wry smile on his lips. This of course mirrors the film’s later scene with Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, Tony and gang leader Ray Marcus (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and adds to the sinister sense of menace, recrimination and foreboding.



Andy Warhol’s Shadows also makes an appearance in Nocturnal Animals – a work composed between 1978-1979, and often viewed as an existential statement in itself, “as everything and nothing, as something fleeting, changeable and as intangible as real shadows” (Donna De Salvo)  – as does one of Koons’ famous balloon dogs (a big silver version) which we see near the beginning. Then, later on, when Susan’s wandering around the museum, she peers up at Damien Hirst’s Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain (below) – perhaps used here to reflect the vulnerability and strangeness in life and death, and our shallow comprehension of both.



What about pieces of art in other films?  The Creator’s Project calls out other noteworthy movie-artworks such as the Turner painting in Sam Mendes’ Skyfall (The Fighting Temeraire), the apocalyptic Guernica by Picasso in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters in the Snow which shows up in both Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Tarkovsky’s Solaris (the latter – also about repressed memories and obsession). We could add to this list: Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and it’s violent horror unfolds around Herman Makkink’s subversive kinetic sculpture Rocking Machine . Then there’s American Psycho featuring Robert Longo’s famous Men in Cities series as a key signifier of Bateman’s psychosis. (What better way to portray a man’s psychopathy than through the art they’ve chosen to adorn their walls?)

5   A Mark Rothko (Untitled No 12) shows up in Neil Burger’s 2009 flick Limitless (starring Bradley Cooper), and Picasso’s Bather makes an appearance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. In Vanilla Sky we see a Vincent Van Gogh and a Monet in scenes with Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz. Then of course there’s The Thomas Crown Affair, with, amongst many other key artworks (copies), the famous The Son of Man painting by René Magritte – seen several times in the film – depicting a man in a suit with a Bowler hat and an apple covering his face.

Magritte once said of his painting:

At least it hides the face partly well, so you have the apparent face, the apple, hiding the visible but hidden, the face of the person. It’s something that happens constantly. Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. – René Magritte

Can you recall any artworks you saw in a film that grabbed you or affected your viewing somehow?


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