Two very different Amy Adam vehicles go into the ring – Tom Ford’s sophomore effort Nocturnal Animals and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. Which Adams film comes out on top?
Let’s bitch it out…
As I mentioned in my post on Julieta and American Pastoral, there are strange parallels cropping up between the films I’m seeing at TIFF 2016. Perhaps this owes to my sensibility in picking films, or maybe it’s the screening schedule, which will naturally put certain films into proximity with one another.
Whatever the case, it was exceptionally amusing to watch Nocturnal Animals and Arrival back to back, not because they both feature Adams as lead, but because they are so incredibly different from each another.
Nocturnal Animals is the second film from fashion designer Tom Ford. He made the well-received A Single Man with Colin Firth a few years ago and his new film sparked a bidding war among distributors, which suggests that buyers see real money making potential in it.
The cast, including Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Laura Linney, Armie Hammer and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is certainly pedigreed, though hardly what you’d call box-office draws. The film itself is certainly more commercial than A Single Man, what with its revenge fantasy and beautiful people, though Ford’s penchant for staging drama like a fashion show may annoy mainstream audiences who are put off by pretentiously artsy directorial choices. I’m also uncertain whether audiences will respond to the film’s narrative; Nocturnal Animals will likely nab a few award nominations (certainly for technical stuff like cinematography and set design), but how will it fare in the court of public opinion?
The plot is David Lynch-lite: Susan Morrow (Adams) is a dissatisfied art gallery owner whose marriage to her philandering second husband (Hammer) is falling apart. One day a manuscript entitled “Nocturnal Animals” arrives – a gift from her first husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) who is reaching out decades after the demise of their tumultuous relationship. His novel concerns a family terrorized on the highway by a car full of young thugs and Susan, an insomniac, spends the majority of the film reading the book, which echoes her marriage to Edward. The novel is visually represented as its own narrative within the film, with Gyllenhaal pulling double-duty as Tony, Isla Fisher as Tony’s wife (clearly intended as Susan/Adams’ stand-in), Taylor-Johnson as the thug ringleader and Shannon as a laconic lawman who provides the majority of the film’s laughs.
The setting and tone help to make the two stories very distinct, though both are still clearly being filtered through Ford’s interpretation of America. Susan’s chilly, anesthetic life in Los Angeles is filled with white walls, expensive looking house porn and facile caricatures of the art scene (Jenna Malone and Martin Sheen briefly show up for hilarious cameos, but they’re easy targets, which saps the satire of its sting).
The “book” world is conventional Western grit: all open air, vistas and sand (the desert looks gorgeous – it is lovingly shot by Ford). This part of the narrative is threatening and violent, a distinct contrast to Susan’s real life existence in LA. The problem, then, is that these Western scenes feel like they belong to an entirely different film and, more problematically, they tell a story that we’ve seen many times before. My issue was a sense of “so what”: everything about Tony’s world is fiction, and none of these developments serve any consequence beyond contextualizing Edward’s point of view on his failed marriage to Susan. Ford dedicates a lot of time to this, which can feel a bit pointless (even if the fictional events of the book are more lively and memorable thanks to the violence and great character work by Shannon). Ultimately the book portions of the film are immaterial; we still wind up with Susan at the end of the film because hers is the real life tale.
Who knows if every day moviegoers will have the same issue. The talent in front of and behind the camera all but guarantee that Nocturnal Animals will do well, though it may only be in limited release and exclusively at art houses.
Arrival, on the other hand, is poised to become one of the fall’s big box office break-outs. The science-fiction film by Canadian director Villeneuve has been garnering major acclaim in the lead-up to its November 11 debut.
Full confession off the top: I am a major Villeneuve fan boy and I have adored all of his films for their intelligence, artistic brilliance and deeply layered character work. Arrival continues this tradition.
The plot is simple: one average day, alien spaceships land at 12 random locations around the globe. Adams plays Dr. Louise Banks, a linguist who is recruited by the military to communicate with the aliens to identify their purpose on Earth before a major international conflict develops.
Like Contact, Interstellar and last year’s The Martian, this is a film about smart, flawed characters who are trying to accomplish something great in the face of overwhelming odds. Arrival joins that very exclusive list of of smart, adult science fiction movies because it doesn’t talk down to its audience or rely on needless special effects to entertain. The fact that there is no real villain in the film proves that Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer understand what makes their film compelling; they know that simply focusing on the paranoia and mistrust between Earth’s nations is enough to drive the plot.
Unlike The Martian, Arrival isn’t particularly funny, which may ultimately keep it from becoming a blockbuster on the same scale as Matt Damon’s lonely astronaut film. Arrival is a more cerebral and less action oriented film (albeit with several exceptional action sequences, one of which Hitchcock would have absolutely loved). Contact is by far the most apt comparison, particularly in both films’ use of classy, intelligent female leads. Adams is far and away the film’s protagonist, and while she’s not playing the warm, exuberant character we often associate her with, there’s a depth and complexity to her performance as a scientist who is overly dedicated to her work, in part because of a tragic backstory. Co-star Jeremy Renner is given far less to do, and he and Adams don’t have anything resembling romantic chemistry, but their friendship and professional camaraderie has an easy-to-believe charm.
Where Arrival truly excels is its technical proficiency. Villeneuve has crafted a gorgeous looking film that is heavy on atmosphere; I was particularly awestruck by the use of editing, pacing and camera movement to generate tension. One highlight is the palpable sense of wonder and unease when the team enters the ship for the first time, a scene aided by fantastic sound design and the hypnotic score by Icelander Jóhann Jóhannsson, a regular Villeneuve collaborator. The cool colour palette (a lot of greys and blues) could feel oppressive and dour, but Villeneuve is careful to contrast the sterile environment of the alien ship and the stark interiors of the military camp with the lush greenery of Montana where the film is set.
There’s so much about Arrival that shouldn’t work that I’m surprised how well it does. The focus on linguistics as a narrative driver, the repetitive flashbacks to Louise’s sick daughter and, in particular, a risky third act that initially feels like a complete farce (but somehow winds up being emotionally cathartic and extremely moving): none of it should work. And yet it does. With Arrival, Villeneuve has established himself as one of Canada’s very best directors and the film establishes him as a director of smart, crowd-pleasing commercial blockbusters. I fully expect the film to be a massive box office hit when it debuts November 11 and it has huge awards potential.
Quite simply Arrival is the best film screening at TIFF 2016 and one that audiences can’t afford to miss.
So what I’m trying to say is that Amy Adams is having a good year. (Isla Fisher, on the other hand…not so much)