Denis Villeneuve is a Quebec born director, and one of the most popular directors working today. Ever since he has burst onto the scene in 1998 with his award winning “On Earth”, he has been at the helm of some of the great movies of the 2010’s. He has been placed in charge of delivering the sequel to the adored film “Blade Runner”, titled “Blade Runner 2049” set to come out late this year.
The first time I watched a movie from Quebec born director Denis Villeneuve was back in 2013, with the release of the film “Prisoners”, a story about the lengths a father will go in order to retrieve his daughter, and the emotional toil of such an experience. In short, the movie is draining. “Prisoners” was Villeneuve’s first real chance to prove himself in Hollywood, expertly handling the pressure of such an emotionally demanding story, along with demanding the best from established actors. This was the first time that I had been really affected by a movie in such a way that I didn’t want to go back to theater. To this day, I have probably watched it about 10 times. Every time, it presents a new detail for me to appreciate.
The first time, I was drawn in by the story, the eerie tone and devastatingly vulnerable performances by fantastic actors like Hugh Jackman as a desperate father who will do anything, and Jake Gyllanhall who plays Detective Loki. After multiple viewings, new aspects of the film become more and more highlighted. In particular, the cinematography. The beautiful, dark, long steady shots that occupy this movie are an essential part of setting up the haunting tone of the movie. The first scene of the movie, in which we open with a fade in of a view of a snowy forest. A deer moves into frame, appearing behind the trees. As the deer stops to eat, we hear Jackman’s character mutter a prayer. The camera slowly pans back, revealing Dover (Jackman) and his son in hunting apparel. The son is holding a gun. A shot rings out, the deer falls dead. This simple shot sets the bar for the rest of the film and sends a message to the audience; No punches are going to be pulled here.
This type of brutal honesty has been sorely lacking from the silver screen for a very long time now. Villeneuve brings it back. After watching more of his movies, such as “Sicario”, most recently “Arrival”, I began to notice a common thread, the films always looked beautiful. Every shot was masterfully composed, every scene had a purpose. Enter cinematographer Roger Deakins, a 12-time Academy Awards nominee for best cinematography, and a man who has quietly been behind the scenes on many great films, including one of the greatest of all time “The Shawshank Redemption”, and cult classics such as “Fargo” and “The Big Lebowski”. Both Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro credit Deakins with accepting roles in “Sicario” in an interview with Collider. All three of the main actors on that movie expressed the amount of respect that he garners, and his legendary status in the film making community. He has worked on some of the most well received films in recent memory including, “Skyfall”, “No Country For Old Men” and “Hail Ceasar”. It’s fitting that he was the Director of Photography on the film adaptation of “1984”, because much like the film and novel, his best work always seems to instill a sense of dread and paranoia in viewers.
Denis Villeneuve (left) and Roger Deakins (right) on the set of Prisoners. Picture from Warner Bros.
This is the secret of Denis Villeneuve, who has managed to bring to life some of the best films of the past 2010’s, not only through his ability to bring out the best in actors (He has seemed to have revived the career of Benicio Del Toro with “Sicario”) and a seemingly uncanny talent to be selective with the stories he chooses, but with the people he trusts to bring his stories to life. This reputation for producing incredibly high levels of both artistic and entertainment has garnered a reputation that has many A-List celebrities anxious to work with him. “Blade Runner 2049” will mark the 4th time that Villeneuve and Deakins have worked together in the past 4 years.
The two also break away from a familiar mold that many films fall into; They linger on shots and don’t over edit their films. Modern cinema has brought us many a movie with many cuts during a scenes that make it undecipherable to see what is happening on screen. There are times in which this can be done correctly, most notably with the way that director Paul Greengrass handled the Bourne films. However, it can also be a detriment, with many films using it as a lazy form of movie making (see “Suicide Squad” and “Taken 3” as the most notorious examples of this practice). As Deakins said himself when talking about “Sicario” in a Deadline.com interview, “We built the tension by holding the shots a lot longer then somebody else might.” This practice of letting scenes develop and build has been all but lost in modern cinema, but there are still people besides Villeneuve and Deakins who produce films that are very similar in the way that they are shot and cut. Another duo in the film industry is director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who have made both “Birdman”, a film build around the concept of being shot in one take (subtle editing tricks were used to fuse the film into one cohesive shot) and “The Revenant”, one of the most breathtaking visual movie experiences to come out in recent memory. The success of that movie (which generated a half billion dollars at the box office) and those of Villeneuve prove that there is a place for films that provide their audience with a fresh dive into a unflinching, realistic and unrelenting style of film making.
Roger Deakins (left) and Denis Villeneuve (right). Photo from http://floodmagazine.com/15359/more-human-than-human-roger-deakins-signs-on-for-denis-villeneuves-blade-runner-sequel/
Denis Villeneuve has been at the forefront of a new movement in Hollywood of creating great films with artistic value, and is certainty one of the most talented. His vision and passion for the medium of visual storytelling is close to unprecedented in this age of blockbuster mind numbing nonsense (Which is not to say that those films are without merit, but simply that there is no comparing them artistically). Combine that with the genius of a methodological and experienced cinematographer like Roger Deakins, and the audience is left with a unique film that creeps into the very soul. Their brand of film is one that is hopefully reviving a genre of personal, intense, and viseral movies, and a brand that can only have a positive effect on cinema.