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Arts & Culture

'Nocturnal Animals' And 'Arrival' Offer Something For The Grown-Ups

Amy Adams stars as an art  gallery owner who thinks her ex-husband has written a novel about her in "Nocturnal Animals."
Focus Features
Amy Adams stars as an art gallery owner who thinks her ex-husband has written a novel about her in "Nocturnal Animals."

Companion viewing

"Contact" (1997)

"A Single Man" (2006)

"Ex Machina" (2015)

Actress Amy Adams deserves kudos for taking on a pair of films that challenge viewers to not just sit passively and watch — but to think. She currently stars in "Nocturnal Animals" (opening Nov. 18) and "Arrival" (in theaters).

We have arrived at a point where movie-going audiences want not only to be spoon-fed their entertainment, but also have everything clearly spelled out in trailers so that when they go to the theater they have no surprises ahead. If that accurately describes how you like to enjoy your movies, then neither "Nocturnal Animals" nor "The Arrival" are for you.

There's nothing wrong with going to the movies for pure escapism and there are plenty of good popcorn movies out there to keep audiences entertained.

But sometimes I long for an escape from escapism. I want to go to a movie to be challenged and to be asked to think about what I have seen and maybe even to do a little work piecing together the elements of a puzzle set before me by a filmmaker.

Both "Nocturnal Animals" and "Arrival" provide films for grown-up audiences that want to see something they can talk about after leaving the theater.

'Nocturnal Animals'

In 2009 fashion designer Tom Ford won over critics with his feature directing debut "A Single Man." It's taken him seven years to come up with second film but "Nocturnal Animals" is worth the wait.

There are two things I love in a movie.

One is the ability to make me see the familiar in a new way and two is an unwillingness to tell me how to think and feel at every turn.

Ford’s "Nocturnal Animals" satisfies on both counts. It reimagines what a revenge film can be in the superficial, privileged world of Los Angeles' elite.

Susan (Adams) has just hosted an opening at her gallery that celebrates a junk culture that she has come to abhor. She presents an elegant, flawless facade but seems devoid of much passion. At an L.A. party, her friend and host tells her to enjoy the absurdity of it all because "Our world is a lot less painful than the real world."

But Susan is about to get a glimpse into a grungier, more painful world by way of her ex-husband’s pulpy manuscript. Apparently she broke up in a "brutal" way with her first husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), a struggling writer whose sensitivity attracted her until she began to see it as weakness instead.

But after 19 years of silence, he has sent her a manuscript for his new novel, something called "Nocturnal Animals," about a man dealing with tragedy and a desire for revenge.

On a certain level Edward's novel is not very good, it goes for rather lurid melodrama but it's very crassness is a sharp contrast to Susan's antiseptic environment. But the novel is less about literary achievement and more about Edward using his art to craft a particular revenge on his ex-wife.

Ford gives us a well-manicured film about people out of touch with reality. It’s a gorgeously designed work that hides its savage commentary beneath a glossy veneer. Ford's film is critical of a certain lifestyle, of people who think nothing of having their assistant read intimate letters out loud to them or where they are so bored with their life and privilege that they fail to find any meaning to anything they do.

The casting is impeccable. Adams never lets her porcelain beauty reveal much emotion. Gyllenhaal gets to play two roles, Edward and Edward's alter ego in the novel we see come to life. Initially the writer and his alter ego look different, Edward is clean shaven and his alter ego Tom is bearded. But when Tom chooses to shave, the two characters start to merge in other ways.

There is also smart casting in having Isla Fisher play Tom's wife in the book because she looks very much like Adams. It is obvious on one level, prompting us to see Susan and the wife in the book as reflections of each other. But it' also a distraction.

Because Edward calls his book "Nocturnal Animals," a phrase he used to describe Susan when they were married, and the book title refers not to Tom's wife, but rather to a brutal killer in the book. And in the end, it is the killer that Edward wants to suggest reflects Susan.

"Nocturnal Animals" (rated R for violence, menace, graphic nudity and language) is not as satisfying a film as Ford's "A Single Man" but it is a solid sophomore effort that makes me eager to see where Ford will take us in his next film. For someone who comes from a fashion world rather than a film one, he shows remarkable mastery of film language and uses shot selection, editing, production design and more to create a flawless world.

Amy Adams is a linguist asked to helped translate communications with aliens that land on earth in "Arrival."
Paramount Pictures
Amy Adams is a linguist asked to helped translate communications with aliens that land on earth in "Arrival."


"Arrival" opened last week and it proves to be quite an appropriate film at this moment in time.

The film deals with a linguist, Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) who is called in by the military to help translate communications with aliens that have landed on earth. The film has the trappings of an "Independence Day" sci-fi film but what it really wants to explore is how we communicate with each other.

This film is especially sweet for me because I went through a work-sponsored seminar about communication and one of the questions was about what is the most important thing when communicating with others, is it your word choice, your tone of voice, your body language? I immediately answered with great confidence that it is obviously the words you choose.

But of course I was wrong.

I think the words you choose ranked number five of seven items. No wonder I have such a hard time communicating with people if the words I so carefully choose are actually of little importance to them.

But in "Arrival" I feel a slight sense of vindication as Adams' character of Banks points out the significance of the nuance of a single word. Perhaps "weapon" is not what we think of as a weapon but rather is meant to be a "tool." That can be the difference between aliens perceived as a threat or as something come to help us.

"Arrival" is a cerebral sci-fi film. It's about language and communication. It's about what happens when people and countries shut down avenues of communication and refuse to share information. It's also about how we can use language to deliberately deceive. There's a wonderful scene where Banks tells a story about how kangaroos got their name and it's all a lie to buy her more time with the military before they shut down her work with the aliens.

At a time when our country seems unable to engage in a civil discourse and where communication between opposing sides seems impossible, "Arrival" asks us to think about how we communicate and the importance of open and free discussion.

The film also challenges us to think about how a story is told and to not expect a strictly linear narrative. The story is more circular than linear and the narrative is fragmented is fascinating ways. As French New Waver Jean-Luc Godard said, every film has a beginning a middle and an end "but not necessarily in that order." The film, directed by Denis Villeneuve (who did "Sicario" and "Prisoners"), provides us all the elements of Banks' story but presents it in a manner that forces us to think how one thing affects another and how that interaction could change. It allows for lovely "aha" moments when we suddenly realize what something means in a bigger sense.

"Arrival" (rated PG-13 for brief strong language) does what science fiction at its best should do: it make us look to the future in a way that allows us to think about the present in new ways. It is more about people than effects and because of that, it is truly refreshing.

Both "Arrival" and "Nocturnal Animals" give me hope that Hollywood is still capable of making films for grown up audiences.