TORONTO – The central event of Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, which plays out roughly in real time, is one of the scarier and upsetting film sequences in recent memory. Late one night on a deserted Texas highway, a family’s car is run off the road by a trio of menacing roughnecks. The everyday terror of the intimidation that follows makes for a sequence that’s relentless and terrifying, in which these three hair-trigger men leer at the wife and daughter, and challenge the power of the father, whom they’ve rendered helpless and impotent by the sheer force of their nastiness.
The fact that it’s fiction within the fiction renders it no less terrifying. It’s the key scene of a novel that’s been sent to our protagonist (Amy Adams) by her ex-husband (Jake Gylenhaal), an event that is clearly rooted in something that happened in their time together, though precisely what is not immediately clear. Ford intercuts her life now, while reading the novel, with the events of the book itself, ingeniously crossing their streams to create images in conversation with each other. He further complicates that structure in the second half by introducing flashbacks to their actual marriage, and to his credit, he keeps control of the narrative, telling each story by telling the other.
The tone is trickier, however; the early scenes of Adams’s vapid rich L.A. existence are almost satirically familiar, and the flashes of camp humor don’t play at all. And the portraiture of grotesque hillbilly culture makes Deliverance look comparatively subtle (keep an eye out for the scene with the guy sitting on the toilet on his front porch, which may as well be the Wikipedia image for “flyover country snobbery”). But it’s a movie that sticks with you- sleek and crisp, as is Ford’s style, but with scenes of domestic terror and toxic masculinity so tautly rendered, you sort of wish he’d just gone all the way with it and made an art-house Last House on the Left.
The emotional notes sounded in the devastating opening sequence of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival aren’t an aberration – he returns to them, devastatingly, in the closing passages – but they aren’t exactly expected. The Sicario director has always been an innovative stylist, and there’s plenty of that on display in this inventive alien-visitors story (which incorporates elements of Contact, Solaris, Intersteller, and several others of your choice). But his tendency to approach his pictures as problems to be solved can translate into a certain coldness, which sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t. That is, to put it mildly, not a concern here.
But it’s also a damned fine Close Encounters-style story of awe and wonder (with a dash of dread); he shows a patience in his introduction of the alien visitors that’s not just admirable, but borderline subversive in a major studio release. He understands that establishing communication between life forms would be a process, and processes take time. But there’s background pressure, a ticking clock presented by the arrival of aliens around the world, in settings that are less friendly than others. That clock almost becomes a diversionary tactic; we’re so busy with the practical concerns that we don’t notice the machinery moving into place to wring our tears.
That phrase makes Arrival sound more manipulative than it is – it’s all organic, the way memories and emotions are intermingled, how present becomes past, and becomes future. The way the resolution is revealed, which I wouldn’t divulge for all the tea in China, is a moment of such storytelling ingenuity and skillful execution that I wanted to cheer at the sheer perfection of the moment, and the brilliant way Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer orchestrate the dialogue, acting, cutting, and scoring. And then they get to the ending, a culmination of elements whose sheer emotional heft is downright staggering. Movies like this are what I’m here for.
The festival-going experience often results in films getting shortchanged by no fault of their own, and I very well might’ve shed a few tears at the tender conclusion of J.A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls had Arrival not just wrung me out. But it’s a really powerful ending, sensitive and clear-eyed, trafficking in difficult, complex, forceful adult emotions. The rest of it is pretty good as well, a handsomely mounted (if slightly airless) story of monsters and nightmares, and the real-life terrors that inspire them.
The primary monster, beautifully voiced by Liam Neeson, is a giant old true that every night, at precisely seven minutes past midnight, pulls himself from the ground, sheds his leaves, and becomes an oaken monster with fiery eyes. He’s a marvel of design, and the nightmare sequences are eerily convincing, while the animation breaks (for the stories he tells our young protagonist) are striking, animated in shifting styles, adding a welcome splash of visual variety. It’s a lovely little movie, and will probably play even better if you haven’t just seen one of the best films of the year.
The worldwide media circus that surrounded the case of Amanda Knox, the American student in Italy accused in 2007 of murdering (along with her boyfriend and another man) her roommate, was one of the out-sized phenomena that makes less sense the more you like at it. Why did this murder attract so much attention? What was our fascination with the case? Amanda Knox, the new documentary by Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn, notes that the separate trial of defendant Rudy Guede attracted relatively little scrutiny. But he was a black man from the Ivory Coast, and she was a pretty blonde from America. And there you have it.
Blackhust and McGinn tell her story nimbly, keeping us off-balance via the careful dissemination of information, walking us through all the versions and variations, stories that shift and don’t add up, turning evidence and eyewitness testimony inside out. They painstakingly trace the hours and days following the murder, reveal the damning evidence that made Knox look so guilty, and let us wonder, for a while, if she might be. And the tabloid press comes off looking worst, particularly their interview subject, a real sleaze named Nick Pisa. (One moment, in which he dismisses basic journalistic processes like fact-checking and multiple-sourcing with a dismissive, “It doesn’t work like that, not in the journalism game,” is particularly enlightening.)
So the doc-Rashomon approach works, as does the style – inventive photography, sharp cutting, baroque score – even if we keep waiting for the filmmakers to blow our minds in a way they never quite do. Amanda Knox isn’t a great true crime movie, but it’ll do ’till the next great one comes along.
Coming up tomorrow: new films from Christopher Guest and Oliver Stone, and a couple of potentially interesting arts-based documentaries.