Amy Adams in Arrival

Director Profile | Is Denis Villeneuve the Saviour of High-Brow Hollywood Cinema?

There’s nothing wrong with PG-13 rated genre pieces – in many ways they’re all that’s keeping modern Hollywood afloat – and they can be hugely enjoyable and thoroughly cinematic. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to see that once a year or so, there is still at least one director making genre films, but for grownups. That is to say; a well produced, thoughtful fair which won’t necessarily be a comfortable viewing experience and is unlikely to end with anything approaching a neat or morally unambiguous conclusion. Denis Villeneuve has been that director for the past number of years, ever since he broke into the more mainstream release schedule with Prisoners audaciously casting Hugh Jackman as an unlikeable person and Jake Gyllenhaal as a vaguely unsettling, scrawny loner before Nightcrawler made this type of Gyllenhaal cool.

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Enemy featuring spiders. Source

A critical darling – especially in his native Canada – ever since his 2001 feature Maelstrom, Villeneuve would go on to direct numerous other respectably lauded films but it was Incendies which solidified him as a talent to take notice of. The 2010 production garnered much attention after premiering at both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals. The very favourable critical reception it received eventually led to it being nominated as the Canadian entry for the Academy Awards in the Best Picture in a Foreign Language category, in addition to a BAFTA nomination and numerous other smaller awards, many of which it would ultimately go on to win. This gave Villeneuve the clout and the attention of the relevant parties which allowed him to make the aforementioned Jackman-led thriller. So began his rapid rise to his current position as a well-liked filmmaker with a style that frequently appeals to the Academy (apart from Enemy’s unforgivable snubbing) and leaves audiences satisfied if a little emotionally worse for wear.

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Denis Villeneuve. Source

Be it Prisoners‘ disturbing look at how the fragile, paranoia-infected denizens of the American heartland can turn on each other – a sentiment which may make that film an even more chilling watch after recent events, or Sicario’s suffocating atmosphere of distrust and anxious confusion, to Enemy’s daze-like journey through the hangover of existential uncertainty (and spiders); no one is going to claim that they’re outwardly “fun” movies. Yet these more recent and technically mainstream works do demonstrate that Villeneuve is near unmatched as a proliferator of dread in modern Hollywood. While the reviews for Arrival are fond of – not inaccurately – employing phrases such as “affirming” and “hopeful”, the marketing has been brimming with the director’s customary unease. The trailers primarily function as tension-building mood pieces, notably low on the kind of action audiences have become accustomed to for an alien invasion film. Instead we’re treated to numerous shots of the looming spacecraft, the uncertainty of what they want or even if we can stop it whatever it is. It’s reminiscent of the early teasers for Prometheus, which was more overtly horror-themed. Yet even this feels fitting, as there is scarcely a better way of describing Villeneuve’s recent output than as a horror-film mentality hidden in non-horror genres.

Dread is constant in his films. While you may expect this in something like Enemy, laced with conspiracy and sinister undercurrents (and you really can’t forget to emphasise the spiders), even Sicario – nominally a straightforward, gritty crime drama – has a better realised horror film atmosphere than much of what gets released these days in your local multiplex. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s truly excellent and unsettling score for Sicario contributes heavily to this but it itself is only complimenting the visuals. The camera’s slow, methodical glide through the safe house from the prologue; it’s walls lined with dozen of corpses in various states of decay evokes a scaled-up and deeply disquieting escalation of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s opening credits sequence. His use of landscape as a looming menace makes frequent appearances in his films – and once more figures into Arrival – but is most effectively utilised in Sicario; a character referring to Juárez as “The Beast” is more than echoed in how the camera captures the foreboding miasma of the cityscape. Even something as simple as a shot of their plane flying, in Villeneuve’s hands, is capable of being disconcerting as the camera looks straight down on the harsh, desert landscape and tracks the tiny shadow of their plane as it passes over; their insignificance, vulnerability and isolation paramount amongst the unforgiving and all encompassing, blasted landscape.

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Emily Blunt in Sicario.

This ability to use space to build mood and convey a story’s atmosphere makes his appointment as director for the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 all the more tantalising. Giving a film like Blade Runner a sequel is in and of itself a risky move; a sacred cow of the genre whose influence, especially visually, would be impossible to achieve again, so rather than try to reinvent that particular wheel, it would be better to do something interesting with the one we have. This will hopefully be the direction Villeneuve goes as his filmography reads like an audition to take on this very challenge; Prisoners proving a willingness to engage with a morally compromised protagonist and brutal violence, Sicario standing out as one of the best crime dramas of the decade with a grit and Chinatown-esque ingrained fatalism often missing from modern examples of the genre, while Enemy demonstrates he’s deftly able to make the audience distrust the identity of the main character and leave proceedings with just as much ambiguity as the Deckard-replicant situation has left fans in for decades. As long as his focus remains on telling an interesting, dark tale within the world Ridley Scott created, his penchant for moody visuals and unsettling crime thrillers, should make for a worthy tale to be told in that world. And if he can pull it off, the prospect of where his career can go next is a fascinating potential future we’ll hopefully get to see.


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