Film: Arrival (2016)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Oscar History: 8 nominations/1 win (Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing*, Adapted Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars
enough to give Incendies my OVP from that year. The next two of his pictures I caught, however, I left less-than-impressed, but mostly frustrated because I found elements of them so good. Villeneuve starts a conversation in his films-he isn't afraid of tackling tough subjects and of giving us heroes that are deeply flawed, but my problem with him always lies in the way he can't quite go there with the ending for his characters, always giving them some moral ways out of hairy, tough situations (he has yet to approach the nasty genius of Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler, even if that feels like a movie he might have made). With Arrival, he takes his style and directorial work into a different direction, and so my question was-can the genius he clearly has be grounded enough by looking in a different direction to finally have me unequivocally proclaim one of his English-language films a masterpiece?
(Spoilers Ahead) Arrival has that same level of frustration, but unlike Prisoners or Sicario, he actually sticks the landing, making this his best movie-to-date. The film reads, on-paper, as somewhat traditional. You have Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist with past experience with the CIA, telling two separate stories, one of her daughter, lost to a rare disease as a child, and one of an encounter with an alien species, and humans trying to find a way to peacefully communicate with the species, with different parts of the world coming together with differing viewpoints (war, peace, something in-between) on how to handle the aliens.
This is a pretty conventional story, and in a lesser director's hands, perhaps it would have stayed solely on that question of "are they good or are they bad?", but Villeneuve is too interesting in his approach to film to stay entirely on that question. We see, relatively quickly in the film (for me, at least) that time is a bit loose; I was able to tell fairly early in the picture that the "flashbacks" to her daughter were actually her in the future, and that would mean that she would live past this encounter, and humanity would continue. This may be the most frustrating aspect of the movie, in my opinion-waiting for a twist you know is going to come is agonizing in a lot of pictures (just ask anyone who's seen most of M. Night Shymalan's later work).
But Villeneuve actually finds a way to make this work for him, particularly aided by a mesmerizing performance from Adams in the central role. He uses her passive voice and demeanor to instill in us a sense of calm, but also defeatedness. Villeneuve's problem is penetrating an audience that is fearful of worldwide catastrophe at any moment, and finding a way to connect with them without getting an eyeroll from an increasingly jaded public. He does that by making this hard-it's not an easy film, and very few answers are spelled out in front of us. He trusts Adams in the central role as our ambassador to these creatures, and to trying to find a strength to be beyond ourselves, a struggle that is as difficult for an audience member as it is for Adams on the screen. Adams smartly doesn't give you a lot of heart in her performance-she is someone who has based much of her life on a few core beliefs, and her job-but she still finds wonder through an introverted, closed-off human being. It's a marvelous look at joy and pain, but more the former which is truly a unique way to approach a film that essentially boils down to, "would you be willing to have the worst moment of your life wiped away if it also took with you some of the best?" The answer is of course what you'd expect from a movie (have the daughter you know will someday die), but the way that Villeneuve gets there, placidly, calmly, but with great thoughtfulness is beautiful. Arrival is his Birdman-where all of his ticks as a director find exactly the right spot to come together, and as a result we get something illuminating.