Steve Jennings on Denis Villeneueve, Roger Deakins and the quest for greatness…
He’s so nearly there, Denis Villeneuve. The Canadian-born director of Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy and most recently Sicario is making a habit of creating enthralling pieces of work that are on the verge of greatness. You sense Villeneuve will strike gold eventually. For now, we’ll have to put up with the likes of Sicario, which, thanks to a blossoming working relationship with Roger Deakins, is by no means a bad thing.
Firstly let’s go back to 2013 and, more specifically, Villeneuve’s first English language feature – Prisoners. This film took me by surprise, not only because I hadn’t realised renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins was attached until my eyes were treated to a couple of the movie’s expertly crafted early scenes. Deakins’ fingerprints are all over this long slog of a thriller, giving Prisoners’ somber events real punch. Hugh Jackman is Keller Dover, a father throat-achingly growling for his young daughter’s return – she has been kidnapped along with another neighbourhood child – while the quiet yet driven Detective Loki, played with unerring subtlety by Jake Gyllenhaal, seeks the truth.
Villeneuve had arguably forged a distinctive aesthetic style before teaming up with Deakins. The opening shot of Incendies is gorgeous and yet forebodingly dark. We track backwards from an almost blissful window view, revealing a rundown building in which child soldiers are having their hair shaved somewhere in the Middle East. The imagery is accompanied by Radiohead’s ‘You And Whose Army’, a song that mirrors the scene’s seamless transition between beauty and stark reality.
He repeats this trick with a similar first shot in Prisoners, tracking back from woodland coated by gently falling snow to reveal two characters with guns on the hunt for deer. With an appearance in both Incendies and Prisoners, I assume Villeneuve conceived the idea of a juxtaposed opening without the aid of Deakins. This is an example of Villeneuve showcasing his potential auteurist traits. I was almost expecting to see the same thing happen in Sicario. Alas, I was disappointed, but also a bit relieved. Repeating an essentially like-for-like scene more than twice could have been perceived as a cheap gimmick.
What Deakins does bring to Villeneuve’s work, as well as that of the other filmmakers fortunate enough to work with him, is situational awareness. Despite the countless impressive shots Deakins has provided over the years, I sense Villeneuve is almost solely responsible for the general aesthetic tone of his own films. Deakins, then, puts his stamp on the moment-to-moment happenings of a picture, particularly in Sicario. Regardless of the numerous trailers’ insistence that this is an all-out-action flick, Sicario burns slowly, tied together by tense, impactful events that lay in between larger character driven segments. Emily Blunt plays a front-line FBI agent thrown into the inner workings of the war against Mexican drug cartels. Without any warning of how events will unfold in her new role, she is forced to battle both morally and physically in a doomed quest for clarity.
Deakins has spoken of his documentary routes playing a part – situating the camera close to the characters etc. – without fully wandering within the realm of the frankly overused shaky camera action we see so often today. This stillness, which adds a layer of dread to Sicario’s otherwise calm scenes, is emblematic of the relationship between Deakins and Villeneuve. We saw it in Prisoners, too. Villeneuve’s general vision is perfectly harmonised by Deakin’s experienced accompaniment.
It’s telling that Villeneuve chose a different cinematographer for his 2013 film Enemy. Whether there were scheduling issues that prevented another partnership with Deakins, I’m not sure. If going with someone else was by choice, then it’s clear Villeneuve knows what he wants from a project, as well as knowing who is best to help him in achieving his goals. (Enemy is a film of such ambiguous themes that I’m unwilling to offer much more analysis that the above few lines. I’d love to peel back its many layers in a separate piece after a second viewing, but now is not the time).
So what’s holding Villeneuve back? He’s 47, equipped with a masterful eye for good cinema, the best working cinematographer and a long line of brilliant actors, most of whom will presumably be keen to reunite for future projects. Well, it would not be unfair to argue he is a rare example of a filmmaker who can do no wrong, but is yet to achieve greatness. For lack of a better comparison, Villeneuve differs from the 1990s filmmakers who immediately rose to fame with their early features, prime examples being Quentin Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs and Paul Thomas Anderson with Boogie Nights. He’s certainly highly rated, but in contrast to those examples Villeneuve appears to be quietly going about his business, producing a body of work that is by no means underwhelming yet similarly fails to break new ground.
For me, this is exciting. Villeneuve is honing his craft, working towards a masterpiece. In no way should the likes of Incendies, Prisoners and Sicario be brushed aside, but I get the impression Denis Villeneuve in on the verge of something even bigger and, crucially, even better.
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