Todd VanDerWerff is at the Toronto International Film Festival, where many of the movies that will dominate our upcoming conversations and the awards season are playing. He will be filing daily dispatches on the films he sees there through next week. For more information on TIFF and the film festival circuit, read our explainer.
In the film, aliens have landed in 12 locations around the world, but their spaceships are just sitting there, seemingly uninterested in whatever humanity is up to. Adams’s character, a linguistics professor named Louise Banks, doesn’t know this yet, though. She missed the scrum of people around the TV on her way into class, and when her classroom is three-quarters empty, she seems perturbed more than curious. She’s even more so when seemingly every student actually in the room starts receiving texts and calls on their phones.
Then one of her students asks her to turn the TV to a news channel, and Adams’s moment arrives. She doesn’t have any dialogue, but her face flickers from annoyance at her class being hijacked, to genuine concern that something horrible has happened in some corner of the world, to fleeting curiosity, then back through again.
It’s not a moment that’s vital to the plot, and if Adams is nominated for an Oscar for her work here (as she probably should be), it won’t be played as her clip at the awards ceremony. But it’s indicative of both her raw talent and what’s kept her from breaking through as a major star outside of awards hopefuls: She conforms to whatever her director needs.
2016 could prove to be the year of Amy Adams
I know quite a few people who don’t like Adams, who strikes them as mannered at best and histrionic at worst. And, to be sure, the roles most viewers encounter her in tend to be in Oscar hopefuls, films where she’s often better than her material, but she’s still dutifully trying to fit herself into the movie’s overall vision. And because these movies are often overplaying their hand in hopes of garnering the attention of Academy voters, Adams too can overplay her hand.
But 2016 is unique in Adams’s career, in that she’s appearing in two completely separate end-of-year prestige films that seem to have specifically cast her because of her skill with disappearing into the overall world of a film.
In Arrival, Denis Villeneuve (the director behind Sicario and Prisoners, among others) needs Adams to be the warmest element in what could be a punishingly chilly film about the gulf that would exist between humanity and any alien species we met. (As an expert in languages, Louise is brought in to help figure out what the aliens are trying to tell us.) In other words, she’s the dash of Hollywood Villeneuve needs to make you keep watching an otherwise brainy puzzle.
Adams also stars in Nocturnal Animals, the second film from Tom Ford, the fashion designer who previously made A Single Man. In some ways, Ford seems to have constructed his film as elaborate fan fiction about Amy Adams, even though her character, Susan, spends most of the film reading a novel written by her ex-husband in bed.
In the novel, she imagines her ex, but married to another woman — played by Isla Fisher, well known for looking a lot like Amy Adams. Ford needs Adams to simultaneously embrace her girl next door image (in flashbacks to her marriage) and also lean into overt melodrama as a rich, brittle woman surrounded by privilege and the trappings of upper class existence. It’s a tricky part, and she executes it beautifully.
Nocturnal Animals ultimately bites off more than it can chew, but it’s sort of fun to watch it sitting there, with food hanging out of its mouth. Arrival, though, is one of the best movies of the year, and it’s a good reminder of why Adams so often excels: She’s so good at being the human element amid the chaos.
And in Arrival, she’s also getting to play a part women aren’t always asked to play in Hollywood films: the smartest person in the room, and the only one who can save the day.
Amy Adams’s specialty is characters who build connections
The natural comparison point here is Jodie Foster in Contact — another exemplary, “We’ve found some aliens, so how do we talk to them?” movie. The two characters have roughly the same goal and are even similarly dealing with tragic losses — in Contact, a parent; in Arrival, a child.
The difference comes in which aspects of their characters the two women focus on, something that stems from the two films’ source material. Where Contact (based on the Carl Sagan novel) was structured like a seemingly unsolvable math problem, Arrival is much more human in its scope. It’s about the problem of connection, of finding a way to bridge gaps between two individuals — no matter which species they come from.
If there’s a common denominator to the work Adams has done over the years, then, it’s in how often she plays characters who bridge those gaps. Even her gleefully sociopathic American Hustle character was someone who cynically exploited those bridges to pull over better cons on her various marks.
Most film fans became better aware of Adams thanks to her first Oscar-nominated role in Junebug, where she played a young pregnant woman neglected by her husband and desperate to find friends. But where many actresses might have been pegged as being best suited for ditzy parts based on that, Adams somehow became pegged as the person you bring in to play the woman aching to find someone to connect to.
What makes her work so good — and so awards-worthy — in Arrival is how the film uses this quality against Adams at first. She begins the movie swathed in loneliness, living in a giant, austere house that seems to exist solely as a series of giant windows she can move in front of in silhouette. And then she meets some aliens and some other scientists, and she discovers a purpose, of sorts.
Arrival is based on a famous Ted Chiang short story (called “Story of Your Life”) that artfully juxtaposes the search for extraterrestrials’ purpose on Earth with the search all of us undergo for our own purpose, even when such a purpose seems opaque and hard to understand. It’s about learning to live with loss, but also with the inevitability of loss — the idea that anything you care about can be stripped from you at any moment.
That’s what makes Adams such a great actor to carry the film. Establishing connections with others means you will have that much more to lose. But somehow, with the microexpressions that flicker across her face, Adams makes you believe all that loss might have been worth it.
Arrival opens November 11 in limited release. Nocturnal Animals opens November 18 in limited release.