Denis Villeneuve: The Director for His Time and Place
“Sometimes there’s a man, well - he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.” - The Stranger, The Big Lebowski
It seems like Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has been with us for ages now, so it comes as a bit of a shock to remind myself that his first English-language film was only as far back as 2013. Here is a director who quickly became part of the past decade’s cinematic fabric - like The Stranger says, he’s a guy who fits right in there.
Why? Well, no-one comes out of a Villeneuve movie and goes skipping down the street. His films are sombre, moody, heavy. They invite thought and discussion after the event. He largely avoids stylistic flourishes, directing with a sense of purpose and quiet meticulousness. That’s not to say Villeneuve’s films don’t have style - they are artfully shot, and he has worked with master cinematographer Roger Deakins on three occasions already. The atmosphere of a Villeneuve movie often surpasses the story, and his introspective style is befitting the angsty past ten years where suddenly everyone has a lot on their minds. He is a director for his time and place.
Director Villeneuve and Javier Bardem on the set of “DUNE”. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment
In a recent interview for MTV’s Happy Sad Confused podcast, Villeneuve said that he’d love to have a crack at directing a James Bond movie. The Daniel Craig era has set the tone for the past 15 years, and it seems unthinkable that his darker, edgier, more internal 007 would be replaced by anything other than more grit. In which case, who would want to bet against Villeneuve getting his wish? After following up Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner with the visionary Blade Runner 2049 and providing his own take on Frank Herbert’s epic novel Dune, he has proven that he is the rarest of things - a safe pair of hands who also brings his own specific style to a project.
Villeneuve received accolades from the very beginning of his career. His full length debut, August 32nd on Earth, screened at Cannes and was the Canadian entry for Best Foreign Language film at the Oscars, but wasn’t nominated. Maelstrom and Polytechnique followed, before he directed the film that brought him to the attention of a much wider audience - Incendies. Adapting Wajdi Mouawad’s stage play to powerful effect, it went one step further than his debut, receiving the Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
That success opened the door to Hollywood, and his ascent has been fast. Let’s take a look at the five movies that took him from indie darling to behind the camera for Dune...
When it came to introducing himself to an English-speaking audience, Villeneuve didn’t pull any punches. Prisoners is an extremely dark, uncompromising crime thriller starring Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a father who takes the law into his own hands after his young daughter and her friend are abducted. The man on the case is troubled Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who arrests a dodgy character driving a battered old RV.
After Loki finds no evidence against the intellectually disabled suspect, Alex (Paul Dano), the police have no choice but to release him. This enrages Keller, who first assaults and then kidnaps Alex, with a view to torturing the whereabouts of the girls out of the frightened young man. Needless to say, nothing is quite as straightforward as it first seems…
Prisoners isn’t exactly a laugh riot, but it is likely to put you uncomfortably on the edge of your seat for two hours and keep you there. It’s harrowing at times, and the scenes of Keller torturing Alex are especially grim. Nevertheless, it is a compelling film, with Villeneuve expertly loading the clues and symbolism in Aaron Guzikowski’s script with intense foreboding. Matching the grim subject matter, the palette is largely a muted range of blues, blacks and slate greys, beautifully shot by Deakins, who received an Oscar nomination for his work.
Jake Gyllenhaal was apparently Villeneuve’s muse in his early English language films, and the director got two performances for the price of one in Enemy, arguably the darkest movie in a pretty gloomy oeuvre. The actor plays Adam, a glum teacher who becomes obsessed with tracking down his dopplegänger, Anthony, an arrogant bit-part actor who he spots in a bad comedy movie. The pair are intensely distrustful of one another, but eventually meet face to face. With a little bit of blackmail, Anthony persuades Adam to trade lives and swap partners for a few days, with disastrous results.
Enemy is a tightly-wound exercise in existential fear built around two outstanding performances by Gyllenhaal. He captures each man’s nuances so well that we don’t question that they’re two different people - compare Adam’s drooping shoulders and hangdog demeanour to Anthony’s slightly surly body language and sense of restlessness.
It’s also another assured performance by Villeneuve, who builds a choking sense of dread and casts Toronto as an alienating metropolis of anonymous neighbourhoods, brutalist housing projects and clone-like workers. The camera prowls menacingly as the mystery unfolds, culminating in a ghastly moment of surreal horror straight out of the David Lynch playbook.
Villeneuve followed up his most arthouse film with his most crowd-pleasing movie to date, Sicario. It’s a gripping, hard-nosed thriller about a go-getting FBI agent who is given the chance to cross the border into Mexico to try taking down the head of a drug cartel. She soon finds out that this world of hitmen, double-crosses and massacres is even murkier than she thought, and her principles are tested when she discovers that the men she works with are operating in grey areas beyond the law.
Sicario is a superior action thriller which takes an in-depth look at the US war on drugs, and doesn’t especially approve of what it finds there. The danger faced by our protagonist, played by Emily Blunt, feels very real, especially during the film’s show-stopping set piece in a traffic jam shootout.
Blunt is fantastic in a part that could have been so clichéd - she’s a tough, driven person who is scared and confused at times, yet her strong ethical code pushes her through the deadly web of deceit. She gets excellent support from Josh Brolin as a shadowy CIA operative and Benicio del Toro, who radiates quiet threat and determination as a Mexican assassin working with his own agenda.
Villeneuve’s second collaboration with Deakins, Sicario is visually stunning, capturing the sunbaked desert landscapes and the chaotic city scenes with equal beauty and immediacy. The film received three Oscar nominations - cinematography, original score, and sound editing - and in another year you might have seen nods to Blunt and Del Toro. The film was followed by a solid sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado, in which the Puerto Rican actor and Josh Brolin reprised their roles.
Released in the same year as the mindless Independence Day: Resurgence, Villeneuve’s cerebral, slow-burning Arrival was on hand to remind everyone that there is a place for smart sci-fi with a powerful emotional core at the multiplex.
Amy Adams stars Louise Banks, a grieving linguist drafted in by the US Army to help communicate when twelve monolithic alien spacecraft arrive on Earth. Some nations don’t greet the visit with open arms, resulting in escalating tensions that leads the world to the brink of conflict. The squid-like occupants of the craft use a strange palindromic alphabet that enables them to perceive the past and the future, and it is a race against time to decipher the language before it all kicks off on terra firma.
Villeneuve stripped back the visual effects to ground the close encounter in reality and let the story do the telling, while Bradford Young’s stark, naturalistic cinematography reflects the emotional state of our protagonist. Banks gradually comes to understand the alien language, revealing some harrowing information about her future. By the climax, she comes to accept it, and it is her internal journey that powers the film.
It’s a fantastic performance by Adams, and it is one of the biggest travesties of recent Oscar history that the academy failed to recognise her contribution while nominating Arrival for eight other awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It’s no exaggeration to say that she is the film, and the story would lose so much of its impact without her at its centre.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
The announcement that Villeneuve would direct a sequel to Blade Runner gave fanboys the most to debate and ponder since the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode I dropped. Ridley Scott’s future noir has long been canonized as one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, and to some, just the very notion of a sequel bordered on sacrilege.
Those fears were mostly unfounded. Villeneuve’s sombre sequel is epic in length, building on Scott’s highly influential vision and imagining a world 30 years down the road from the original film. With a few well-chosen callbacks such as the giant Atari electronic billboard, this is an all-too-realistic dystopia of choking pollution, rampant overcrowding and tempestuous weather, and it’s all brilliantly realised.
Ryan Gosling does his stoic, soulful thing (see also: Drive, The Place Beyond the Pines) which is well suited to the part of K, a replicant working for the LAPD as a Blade Runner, retiring renegade androids. Subservient to his boss and human colleagues, he has little happiness in his life, apart from his holographic AI girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) - it’s a future where even the replicant helpers have their own replicant helpers.
Harrison Ford throws on some slacks and a T-shirt to reprise his iconic role of Deckard from the first film, while there is solid support work from Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Dave Bautista and Jared Leto. In a role originally intended for David Bowie, Leto’s innate smug self-regard is perfect for playing Niander Wallace, a sinister genetic engineer who wants to populate the galaxy with self-reproducing replicants.
Critics were mostly positive, but Blade Runner 2049 did not perform as well as hoped in theatres. Some attributed this to its daunting length and slow-burning pace - Villeneuve sure takes his time unfolding the story and it’s a film to luxuriate in. If you don’t buy into its world, there is a good chance you’ll be bored. The central mystery is a little ordinary, but it is a film that is visually and aurally overwhelming - one to be watched on the biggest screen available with the sound turned all the way up.
Next up for Villeneuve is Dune, hitting theatres as I write. The early buzz and reviews are promising, but will it give us a spectacle to rival Sting in his fancy underpants in David Lynch’s much-maligned version?
Thanks Lee! We have booked our tickets already.
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.