A remarkably cohesive double bill screened for journalists at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday morning. Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival,” landing here after its screenings in Venice, Italy, and Telluride, Colo., is a science-fiction thriller that plays like an intimate psychological drama. Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals,” which debuted at Venice, is an intimate psychological drama whose odder moments feel like science-fiction (specifically, one set in that garish, moneyed alternate universe known as Los Angeles).
Both pictures are immaculate in their craftsmanship, precisely directed to a fault and rigged with intricate surprises. Both, too, have the good fortune to star Amy Adams, in each case playing an emotionally guarded, fiercely intelligent woman whose sad, solitary life is interrupted by something — a revelatory manuscript in “Nocturnal Animals,” an extraterrestrial invasion in “Arrival” — that seriously throws off her sleep cycle and leads her toward a powerful reckoning with past wounds.
In “Arrival,” adapted by Eric Heisserer from Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” those wounds concern the young daughter that Adams’ character, Louise, has lost to cancer. If the death of a child has become a cheap, over-exploited device in too many movies, “Arrival” uses it deftly enough — more deftly, arguably, than Alfonso Cuarón’s very different “Gravity,” one of several cosmic cinema touchstones with which Villeneuve’s movie seems to be in conversation.
When Earth is visited by 12 sleek gray spaceships, each carrying a set of squid-like, seven-legged aliens, Louise, a linguist, is brought in to study their language — a problem of cross-species communication that harks back to the puzzles of “Solaris.” In his own way, too, Villeneuve is trying — with more elegance and concision, but also a less sweeping command of the medium — to do what Christopher Nolan did in “Interstellar,” which is to collapse the distance between scientific rigor and emotional logic, and also to reconfigure how we generally think about cinematic time and space.
A movie whose underlying philosophy might be summed up by E.M. Forster’s dictum to “only connect,” “Arrival” perceives time, memory and love as an infinitely recurring cycle, one embodied in the inky circular symbols that constitute the aliens’ language. (The movie is nothing if not a triumph of production design.) Connection, of course, is one of the main reasons we go to the movies, and if Villeneuve’s attempt to turn a clever puzzle into a profound human quandary ultimately feels a touch facile, Adams’ performance is easily his most powerful and persuasive weapon. In a film that works hard to make the cerebral feel emotional and vice versa, her cool, layered intelligence always pulses with feeling.
Adams’ work in “Nocturnal Animals” is no less accomplished, even if the woman she’s playing is a largely reactive presence — the entry point to a movie that starts out as a glassy character study before morphing into something altogether stranger and more ambitious.
The film features two protagonists whose stories unfold in parallel. The first one, Susan (Adams), runs an L.A. art gallery and lives in a gorgeously chic modernist fortress with her distracted, philandering husband (Armie Hammer). The second one, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), is driving with his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter (Ellie Bamber) through Texas one night when they’re pulled over by some local toughs — an intensely harrowing scene that proves Ford has far more to offer behind the camera than acres of impeccable style.
That much was already clear to those of us who admired his 2009 directing debut, “A Single Man.” That film had gorgeous L.A. architecture and hot flashes of Almodóvarian color, true, but it also had a powerful emotional integrity and exceptional performances from Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Nicholas Hoult. Ford’s skill with actors has only deepened in “Nocturnal Animals,” which boasts rich, scene-stealing turns from Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a scary Texan ne’er-do-well and Michael Shannon as an eccentric (even for Michael Shannon) local detective. As for what Laura Linney and Jena Malone pull off in their wickedly funny single-scene cameos — well, I’ll leave it to the audience to discover.
Ford is working through some weighty themes here: the paralysis that seizes hold of weak-willed men in a life-or-death situation, and the desire to lash out and take revenge. As ever, his aesthetic is so polished and exacting that it’s easy to overlook what an ambitious meta-narrative construct he’s pulled together, as “Nocturnal Animals” reveals itself to be a wild synthesis of colliding narratives and contradictory tones. Tucked amid all the narrative strands is a priceless send-up of the L.A. art scene, though you have to wonder whether Ford is aware of the irony when he gives us a grisly crime scene that itself looks like a lovingly arranged museum exhibit.
Ford judges both his lead characters harshly, but he gives Susan far less to do. All she can do, really, is lie around her house (did I mention that it’s gorgeous?), drowning in depression and caked in eye shadow as she submits to the cruel fate that has been plotted out for her. One of the major themes of “Nocturnal Animals” is the therapeutic — and destructive — properties of writing and reading fiction, and the ways in which certain stories take on a life of their own. As played by Adams, Susan registers vividly enough that I felt only compassion for her by movie’s end, enough to make me wish that Ford had shown her a bit more of his own.
That storytelling can be a powerful balm for the pain and suffering of everyday existence is one of those bedrock artistic truths that a movie shouldn’t have to spell out explicitly. It’s fascinating, though, to see a number of films digging beneath the surface of the idea, exploring the virtues and limitations of storytelling, and simultaneously questioning and reaffirming the very nature of the cinematic medium.
In “Nocturnal Animals,” one character exorcises his own pain by transmuting his deepest frustrations into fiction. “A Monster Calls,” a wrenching new drama from director J.A. Bayona (“The Impossible”), wrings a much more genteel and humanistic variation on this theme. Adapted from Patrick Ness’ 2011 novel, the film follows a creatively gifted, socially withdrawn boy named Connor O’Malley (an excellent Lewis MacDougall) who tries to save his terminally ill mother (Felicity Jones) by retreating into the depths of his own formidable imagination.
Connor is visited regularly by a towering, walking-and-talking yew tree — voiced by Liam Neeson with the same wisdom-of-the-ancients gravitas he brought to the role of Aslan in the “Chronicles of Narnia” movies — who proceeds to tell him three stories, each one carrying a valuable lesson. “A Monster Calls” isn’t exactly subtle entertainment; it articulates its themes with a directness that younger audiences will especially take to heart. But what sounds on paper like “Pan’s Labyrinth” by way of “Terms of Endearment” turns out to be an altogether more exquisite and affecting experience than that crude formulation suggests.
For all its forays into the fantastical, the movie is richly grounded in its workaday British setting, and the three primary adult actors — Jones, Sigourney Weaver as Connor’s unsmiling grandmother and Toby Kebbell as his geographically distant dad — do fine work as adult family members who struggle to provide Connor with the emotional support he needs.
As he demonstrated in “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible,” Bayona innately seems to understand the inner lives of children, their need for enchantment and mischief even in the direst of straits. His regard for his young protagonists is devoid of condescension and full of feeling. Bring handkerchiefs, by all means; the emotions coursing beneath all this elaborate make-believe turn out to be devastatingly real.