'Nocturnal Animals' Ending, Explained: What Is The Meaning Of It?

Nocturnal Animals Amy Adams Susan Morrow Jake Gyllenhaal Edward Sheffield Tony Hastings Focus Features
Focus Features / BOND

What does any of it mean? “Nocturnal Animals” has the kind of ending that leaves you wondering, thanks to its artistically rendered ambiguity. By the end, viewers are left to sort out the dizzying details of a sordid and intricately plotted drama. Most of what they are left to deal with comes down to the movie’s final scenes, which begs many questions that might have answers.

Before getting into the thought-provoking ending, let’s set some ground rules and explain why the movie is getting discussed five years after its release in 2016. Now on Netflix, “Nocturnal Animals” tells two interconnected tales without questioning the sanity of its main character. Susan (Amy Adams) is a gallery owner entering a crossroads in her second marriage when her first husband abruptly re-enters the picture.

Husband #1, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), has written his seminal novel -- a disturbing tale about a family of three (husband, wife, daughter) whose road trip takes a horrifying detour. Susan becomes enraptured by her former spouse’s manuscript while also recounting and reflecting upon the lead-up to how their marriage ended. Suffice it to say that while a lot gets written, even more of the story lies between the lines.

Warning: Spoilers for the ending of “Nocturnal Animals” are discussed below. The following analysis contains details and opinions about the conclusion of the film.

So, What Is The Movie’s Ending for Susan and Edward?

In the “real world” of “Nocturnal Animals,” Susan arranges to meet with Edward after completing his book. She seems to realize that she still loves him and regrets ending their marriage. After setting a time and date, Susan goes to meet Edward at a restaurant. He never shows. Or at least, not when most of the patrons are still around. 

“Nocturnal Animals” zooms in on Susan’s “sad eyes,” as remarked upon by Edward earlier in the film. It seems as though Edward not showing up has solidified Susan completely turning into her icy mother. The ending with all its inferences comes hot on the high heels of the movie, finally revealing why Susan broke up with Edward in the first place.

Never Miss A Post!

In the past, as Susan questions staying in her marriage to Edward, she cheats on him before eventually going to an abortion clinic with would-be Husband #2: Hutton (Armie Hammer). The implication is that Susan got one, and Edward is/was the father. Hence, her mournful regret of what she “did to Edward’s child” as Hutton comforts her in the car. 

As Susan sits up from Hutton’s embrace, she sees Edward standing out in the rain through the windshield. (The theme of raindrops coming into sharp focus.) Edward is distraught by the scene, putting the death nail in the marriage.

Nocturnal Animals Michael Shannon Detective Bobby Andes Focus Features
Focus Features / BOND

What happens in the book’s ending with Tony?

Over in the book world, an act of frontier justice has led Robert (Michael Shannon) and Tony (also played by Jake Gyllenhaal) to a remote area with an apprehended Ray and Lou. They are two of the people in the gang who murdered Tony’s wife and daughter. 

Realizing that they are done for, Ray and Lou make a break for it. Tony has a clear shot at them but fails to kill Lou. Robert (who is dying of cancer) finishes the job for Tony, who finds himself emotionally crushed by his inability to act. It also allows Ray (Aaron Taylor Johnson) to escape.

Tony catches up with him, and the two square off. Ray finally acknowledges that he is guilty while also mocking Tony, saying that Tony cannot shoot him. As he approaches Tony with a crowbar in hand, Tony shoots him. Ray is still able to hit Tony with a crowbar, though, thus, rendering Tony unconscious. 

When Tony wakes up, Ray is dead, but Tony has also gotten blinded in one eye. Tony eventually stumbles to the ground outside while seeking help. As a result, he accidentally shoots himself in the abdominal region. Tony accordingly dies.

Wait, is Susan’s daughter, Samantha, actually Edward’s?

While it is heavily implied that Susan aborted hers and Edward’s baby, my read is that she did not, and her daughter Samantha is the result, even though it sounds a bit far-fetched. This theory immediately came to mind while watching “Nocturnal Animals” unfold in real-time. 

In contrast to an IMDb trivia entry that discounts the idea based on the story’s timeline, I still think Samantha could be Edward’s daughter. “Nocturnal Animals” hints that Samantha is in college, which could put her as young as 18 and as old as 22. Susan says she has not spoken to Edward in 19 years.

Samantha could easily fit into that time range, and let’s face it. It makes more sense for Samantha to be Edward’s daughter than to accept that Susan got an abortion, only to get pregnant again shortly afterward by her second husband, Hutton. Thus, keeping that baby while aborting the other.

Nocturnal Animals Jake Gyllenhaal Edward Sheffield Tony Hastings Focus Features
Focus Features / BOND

There Is More Proof

It makes sense that Susan’s guilt stems from raising Edward’s daughter as Hutton’s. It explains why she calls Samantha after reading the chapter wherein Tony’s daughter is murdered, imagines Tony’s daughter looking like Samantha, and why Susan accepts Hutton’s philandering.

She may see it as the “price”/tradeoff of asking Hutton to raise a child he knows is not his. Why would Susan lie about Samantha’s paternity? She wanted to be free of Edward and start a new life. Lying about Samantha’s paternity gets Edward out of her life without having to get an abortion.

For Susan, it is a win-win. Plus, “Nocturnal Animals” never explains how Susan cheats with Hutton but knows Edward is undoubtedly the father of her baby. What else would be her motive for moving on with Hutton so soon after ending her marriage to Edward? Helping to camouflage any paternity questions could be a motive.

What is the point of the book storyline?

Tony, like Edward, is “weak.” He gets faced with shooting the man who raped and murdered his wife and daughter, and he cannot initially bring himself to do it. Like Edward, Tony grows “stronger” as “Nocturnal Animals” develops. In Edward’s case, he finishes a novel that hard-boiled Susan finds engrossing, repulsive, and impossible not to continue reading. It is a success.

Plus, Edward stands on his own feet and does not get end up back involved with Susan. Their relationship and eventual marriage cycled through with Susan mainly in the driver’s seat. Cut to the future/present, and “Nocturnal Animals” ends with Edward assuming that role.

Similarly, in the “book world,” Tony cannot save his wife and daughter. Tony is, however, able to avenge them despite his evident repulsion at actually going through with it. The theme is a shift in power in both storylines -- Susan’s from strong to weak, and Edward/Tony’s from meek to vigorous.

There is even more to it if you allow your mind to venture through the various facets of “Nocturnal Animals” and its deceptively deep plotline. To me, it is about modern masculinity (see: “True Detective” Season 1) and the price tag women put on it, and what they believe it costs to earn it.

One of the central “values” women have traditionally put on men is their ability to defend them from harm, physically. In other words, keep them safe, and protect their honor. Historically speaking, if a man has been unwilling to fight for a woman on physical terms, he has gotten branded a coward. After Tony kills in the book, Susan wants to meet up again with Edward, indicating he has “proven” himself to her.

Nocturnal Animals Aaron Taylor-Johnson Ray Marcus Focus Features
Focus Features / BOND

The Impact of Susan And Edward’s Marriage Ending

It is not clear if Edward is aware that Susan is at a clinic and may have aborted his child. Or if he thinks that the baby is Hutton’s since Susan is in his embrace when he discovers Susan at the clinic. One could easily imagine Edward asserting that Susan cheating on him had led her to get an abortion, her motive being to cover up the consequences of an affair.

Regardless, this event marks the end of Susan and Edward’s relationship, and it would seem a second shot at one evaporates during the ending. For his part in the present day, Edward has succeeded in proving he is a great writer and worthy of Susan believing in him. 

By Susan’s own admission, she did not. Edward also has a teaching job, which means he is capable of financially supporting himself. Susan had implied that Edward wanted to live off her instead of helping contribute to the marriage. Later evidence indicates the contrary. 

At the same time, Edward has never re-married, which indicates that he never got over her. Plus, he dedicated his book to her for the whole world to see. “Nocturnal Animals” hints that Edward acknowledges the relationship and its impact on him for better or worse. It could also be argued he is still in love with Susan. Or at least, it has a soft spot for her. 

Since Tony dies in the book, it would seem that Edward could have died too. Tony dies after accidentally shooting himself. A tragic end to a tragic story. What does that mean for Edward? Tony’s heartbeat slowly fading as Susan dresses up for her date with Edward, possibly symbolizes something: Edward dying simultaneously as his counterpart.

Nocturnal Animals Amy Adams Susan Morrow Focus Features
Focus Features / BOND

The Movie’s Ending, Explained

My initial reaction to the “Nocturnal Animals” ending was that Edward died in an accident on his way to meet Susan. Throughout the movie, he never registers as a cruel person. So, it seems out of character for Edward to stand Susan up. Of course, it could be possible that Edward standing Susan up was his way of exacting revenge on her, coinciding with Tony’s vengeance.

That said, it personally makes more sense that he died, and Susan assumed the worst because she never believed the best about Edward. While intentional or not, Edward could have gotten revenge on Susan for how she treated him. Like Tony’s coinciding fate, that could have been incidental.

Tony and Edward mirror each other throughout “Nocturnal Animals,” including neither man re-marrying following the fate of their first marriages. It makes sense that their ultimate destinies are similarly entwined. Plus, it leaves an air of mirrored misunderstanding. Tony somewhat misinterpreted what was happening between Susan and Hutton in the car. Years later, Susan misconstrues why Edward does not come to their dinner date. 

Both interpretations provide bookends to a story teeming with nuance and deliberate symbolism that makes it as thematically rich as the world it soaks up. To me, “Nocturnal Animals” provides a study of how women perceive and influence masculinity by defining it.


“Nocturnal Animals” is currently streaming on Netflix alongside a lot of other compelling titles. From movies to television, there is a lot that Eclectic Pop can help you find. Do you agree with this analysis of the ending? Leave a comment below.