If one were to take a poll of contemporary cinephiles asking them to name the most exciting filmmakers working today, the name of director Denis Villeneuve would undoubtedly slide in towards the top of the list— if not cap it outright.
Films like PRISONERS (2013), SICARIO (2015), and ARRIVAL (2016) have stunned audiences with their daring narratives and stylistic bravura, subsequently positioning him as an inspired steward of tricky franchise resurrections like BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) and the upcoming DUNE. Although he’s been around international film circles since the 1990’s, this rather incredible run of acclaimed films throughout the 2010’s have sent his profile skyrocketing into the stratosphere.
Indeed, it’s gotten to the point that his name could be mentioned in the same breath as Christopher Nolan when discussing prestigious studio filmmakers whose films are seen as “events” in and of themselves.
While he is often compared to Nolan due to their shared mastery of filmmaking‘s technical aspects and epic-canvas approach to storytelling, Villeneuve distinguishes himself through an ability to conjure a sustained atmosphere of deep dread and relentless foreboding— the visual equivalent of a low-frequency note that one can’t actually hear but nonetheless experiences as an unsettling sensation.
He has yet to make a horror film in the classical sense, but his artistic style nonetheless channels the existential horror of his protagonists and projects it outward as slow, undulating waves of tension. His body of work may span three decades, but there is a distinct sense that the 52 year-old filmmaker is only just getting started.
Born October 3rd, 1967, in Bécancour, Quebec (6), Villeneuve’s background as a French Canadian citizen fundamentally shapes the character of his early career. He studied filmmaking at the Université du Québec á Montréal, experiencing some success with his earliest efforts: in 1991, for example, Villeneuve was selected as the winner of a youth film competition hosted by Radio-Canada.
“REW FFW” (1994)
Even before he came to the attention of mainstream American audiences, he received several Canadian Screen Awards (their equivalent of our Oscars or Emmys). His earliest available work from this period — the 1994 short REW FFW — seems far removed from the style we associate with Villeneuve today, but it nevertheless plants the seeds for his particular artistic worldview.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in his insistence on referring to the piece as a “psychodrama” instead of a “film”. The term, whether it was coined by Villeneuve himself or someone else, could easily apply to any of his feature films (at least, within his 2010’s output).
It acts as a descriptor of both subgenre and tone, grounding events as outlandish as an alien invasion, meeting one’s exact doppelgänger, or even the discovery of oneself as a synthetic human being with nuanced, complex character reactions.
REW FFW adopts this conceit to an extreme degree, positioning itself as a pseudo-sci-fi immersion into the experiences of a journalist interacting with the Rastafarian culture in an impoverished Jamaica. In structuring his story as a series of first-person memories that the protagonist can experience like a film, able to jump around at any point in the timeline with the aid of a special device, Villeneuve blurs the line between documentary and fiction.
Shot by Villeneuve himself and cameraman Martin Leclerc on 16mm film, the footage is presented in a handheld, cinema-verite fashion, complete with rack zooms and frequent composition adjustments that organically capture the desolate ruins and strangely-beautiful squalor of an urban slum that the locals refer to as “Trench Town”.
Indeed, it almost feels as if the footage had been shot on-the-fly with no ulterior agenda during a trip to the island nation, only to have a narrative shape imposed upon it after the fact. Indeed, it’s in Villeneuve’s collaboration with editor Suzanne Allad where the footage coheres into a coherent story, bolstered by a richly-layered sound mix that blends production audio with snippets of found radio transmissions and evocative aural effects.
The key piece of Villeneuve’s audiovisual puzzle is his inclusion of a shot that slowly approaches a strange box, lit in a theatrical style that stands in stark contrast to the naturalistic Jamaica footage. A voiceover tells us this is the vehicle through with the protagonist can access his memories at will— a kind of psychological cinema projector.
Scrappy, abstract and decidedly experimental, REW FFW bears little resemblance to the weighty, formalist aesthetic Villeneuve would come to be known for. However, it nonetheless establishes that his cerebral approach to form and content has been in place from the very start.
The piece steadfastly refuses to provide easy answers, forcing the audience to work for total comprehension by utilizing a stream-of-consciousness bilingualism that harkens to Villeneuve’s French-Canadian roots.
Above all, it evidences a young filmmaker eager to capitalize on the endlessly malleable visual grammar of the cinematic art form— and in the process, it becomes the first step towards a highly-influential career that has managed to entwine itself with the contemporary zeitgeist.
In recent years, director Denis Villenueve has emerged as one of the most exciting filmmakers working in large-scale, big-budget studio filmmaking. While he doesn’t quite command the box office like his generational cohort Christopher Nolan, he has nonetheless parlayed the appreciation of critics and a cult fan base into a similarly-showmanlike reputation wherein the release of a new Villeneuve film is regarded as a major cinematic event.
Our American-centric worldview would deign this period to have begun shortly after the release of his studio breakout, PRISONERS (2013), but the fact of the matter is that Villeneuve has been enjoying accolades since his very first feature was released in 1998. That film, AUGUST 32nd ON EARTH, told the story of a model trying to get pregnant by her best friend, and premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival before entering a home video black hole that persists to this day.
During the production of that film, Villeneuve conceived of another idea, born of a nascent fascination with car accidents. While he ultimately had to put it down, citing frustration over his difficulty in developing the project further, he nonetheless found the idea persistent enough to return to it a year later (2). Titled MAELSTROM, the project seemed to present itself to Villenueve almost as a comedy (albeit a very dark one), whereas many people he gave the script to experienced actual nightmares (1).
In crafting his story about a woman who rails against the absurdity of her fate and other cosmic coincidences, Villeneuve had discovered a truly unconventional story worth committing to film, and subsequently enlisted his AUGUST 32nd ON EARTH producer, Roger Frappier (working alongside Luc Vandal), to help make his outrageous vision a reality.
Taking place in Montreal, the epicenter of Villeneuve’s Quebec, MAELSTROM concerns the plight of Bibian Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), a deeply-flawed protagonist who is introduced terminating her pregnancy— easily one of the more polarizing scenarios in which one could possibly establish a lead character. In this context, the procedure is emblematic of her very troubled life.
Bibian is a small business owner in Montreal whose enterprise is on the brink of collapse; what little success she’s experienced, however, stems less from her entrepreneurial spirit and more from her notoriety as a privileged child of a local celebrity.
Racked with guilt, depression, and a healthy dose of nihilism, she has turned to drugs, alcohol, and risky casual sex as coping mechanisms. In what could be considered her breakout role, Croze imbues this hot mess of a protagonist — who Villeneuve modeled after different women he had known, including a pathological liar (3) — with a beleaguered energy that continually isolates her from her environment and from others. Indeed, her only friend in this bleak world is Stephanie Morgenstern’s Claire, a supportive friend who is nevertheless beginning to strain under the burden of Bibian’s friendship.
This exceedingly brittle status quo is completely shattered one night when Bibian strikes an old man with her car and immediately drives off into the night. Later on, she discovers that the man, a Norwegian fisherman, died from his wounds after staggering on foot all the way back to his apartment. As her guilt mounts to unbearable levels, she decides to commit suicide by driving her car off a tall dock and into the black water below.
When she ultimately lives, she comes to view the episode as a kind of spiritual and moral cleansing, and allows herself the blessing of moving on with her life. Villeneuve’s darkly absurdist plot, however, has different plans— by chance, she comes to make the acquaintance of the fisherman’s son, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verrault), who has traveled to town to collect the ashes.
An instant connection forms between the two, compelling Evian to miss his plane back in favor of a romantic interlude at her apartment. The bizarre flow of fate and irony once again inserts itself, revealing that the small plane Evian was supposed to be on crashed, killing everyone onboard. As Evian takes to calling Bibian an “angel”, her guilt returns, with the promise — or threat — of a full-fledged reckoning between the terrible sins of her past and the hopeful future she’s only just begun building for herself.
MAELSTROM’s narrative may be rooted in grounded human drama, but Villeneuve’s visual interpretation of the plot’s pitch-black irony often approaches the realm of fantasy. Indeed, it often plays like the bleakest of fairy tales. The story even has a storybook-style narrator, albeit in the twisted form of a dying fish on a butcher’s grisly chopping block in some underground dungeon taken straight out of a stylized snuff film.
Voiced by Pierre Lebeau, the animatronic puppet seems to possess an ancient omniscience, and can transfer its life essence from body to body as the butcher chops his way through a bucket of fish. This (very strange) conceit also manifests as a recurring visual motif throughout Biban’s story; Villenueve frequently populates his 35mm 1.85:1 frame with the sight of dead or dying fish flopping around on the road, or being run over by indifferent sedans.
Bodies of dark, churning water also appear throughout, emphasizing the fish’s isolation from their habitat even as they echo Bibian’s roiling internal tumult. The visual conceit of “the fish” continues on through MAELSTROM’s particular aesthetic approach, with director of photography André Turpin’s high-contrast, cold-skewing color palette evoking their chromatic appearance via strong blues & greens.
Villeneuve and Turpin intentionally throttle the color red, making its occasional appearance all the more striking and unnatural. Production designer Sylvain Gingras’ sleek, sterile sets complement this color scheme while allowing for lots of bright light, which Turpin subsequently overexposes to such a degree as to create an overpowering daytime nightmare not unlike the onset of a migraine.
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Editor Richard Comeau makes order of Villeneuve’s primarily-handheld chaos, codifying MAELSTROM’s visual grammar as a series of close-up faces and whip pans that evoke Bibian’s emotional unmooring as well as her alienation from a modern urban nightmarescape that threatens to swallow her whole. The film’s musical approach makes a pointed attempt at cruel irony, deploying a sprawling menagerie of eclectic needledrops that range from intense choral opera cues to cheery vintage pop. The end result is a soundtrack that primarily serves as narrative commentary in lieu of conveying a distinct mood.
Villeneuve’s deliberately-incongruous musical choices underscore the core message that informs MAELSTROM’s unique tone, which he describes as a “playful call to be responsible and to be careful” (4). In his worldview, the modern world is beset by perils both physical and existential, and the best way to navigate this endless obstacle course is to cultivate a morbid sense of humor.
Nowhere is this more evident than in one of MAELSTROM’s final moments, where the dying fish narrator, caught in an endless, seizing loop of death and consciousness, announces that he’ll now share with the audience the secret to life’s meaning— only to receive a final decapitation before he can get the words out.
This early iteration of Villeneuve’s thematic conceits, as relativity unformed as it is, bridges the gap between the self-described “psychodrama” affectations of his debut short REW FFW (1994) and the foreboding atmosphere of his later studio features. Though it is set against a modern, cosmopolitan backdrop, MAELSTROM abstractifies its Montreal setting into a malevolent dystopia that seems to actively conspire against Bibian, aiding and abetting her depression with its claustrophobic, industrial atmosphere.
Villeneuve achieves this through exaggerated interpersonal melodrama, as well as his lensing of locations in such a way as to emphasize isolation and alienation— wet streets littered with dead fish, cramped living quarters, sterile offices, and exteriors whose towering architectural elements dwarf the buzz of human activity below.
While Montreal’s signature landmarks and culture are downplayed in favor of an admittedly generic cityscape, MAELSTROM nevertheless forms the foundation for the oppressive, imposing environments that populate Villeneuve’s subsequent filmography: the soggy Pennsylvanian suburbs of PRISONERS, the hostile slums of Mexico City in SICARIO, or the monolithic future LA of BLADE RUNNER 2049, to name just a few.
MAELSTROM would premiere on home turf, the Montreal World Film Festival, and was subsequently followed by a US premiere at Sundance and the FIPRESCI prize at Berlin. Critics didn’t quite know what to make of Villeneuve’s transgressive fable, but there were enough champions for the film to land it several Genie Awards (now known as the Canadian Screen Awards), including the top prize for Best Motion Picture.
What happened afterward, however, was a development very much befitting the film’s dripping veneer of irony— Villeneuve was unhappy. Despite all the accolades and surging career momentum, he viewed MAELSTROM (and to the same extent, AUGUST 32ND ON EARTH) as artistic failures that didn’t live up to the high standards he had set for himself.
Subsequently, he embarked on a self-imposed sabbatical from filmmaking until he could make a film “he felt proud of” (1), and for the next nine years, he would stay home and raise his children. Villeneuve’s career could have rightly ended here, but the future had something else in store for the young filmmaker.
Notable Festivals: Cannes (Director’s Fortnight)
The 21st century has long been heralded as an optimistic era of transformative societal change, but two decades in, it’s clear that it will continue to be dominated by the regressive attitudes of the 20th. The trend began as early as the waning hours of December 31st, 1999, when New Year’s Eve celebrations were tempered by fears of society-wide collapse driven by a poorly-coded computer bug.
Obviously, that scenario didn’t pan out, but the conflicts of twentieth-century globalism quickly imposed themselves upon our hopes for a new, brighter era: September 11th, imperial occupations masquerading as wars of liberation, widening inequality, and debilitating economic recessions. Even as of this writing, a global pandemic that threatens to surpass the scale of the 1918 influenza crisis has forced the world’s population to seek refuge indoors for the foreseeable future.
“The new normal” is a phrase thrown around often these days, implying that the hope and progressive ambitions pinned to the dawn of the new millennium have been replaced by a deep, enduring state of existential dread, insecurity, and fear.
Of all the various scourges of this still-nascent century, perhaps no “new normal” is as aggravatingly avoidable as runaway gun violence. Mass shootings occur with alarming regularity in America, and our utter inability to marshall overwhelming public sentiment into meaningful legislation has resulted in a climate of resignation, fatalism and inevitability.
We think of this scourge as uniquely American; gun control advocates breathlessly point to all the other countries who boast low shooting rates thanks to strict gun laws, while proponents doggedly stick to the text of the Second Amendment as if it was gospel. Our neighbors to the north are often invoked in these sorts of arguments, held up as a prime example of common sense gun control that doesn’t come at the expense of individual freedom.
Yet, it is Canada where the template for the modern-day American school shooting was forged. In a December 1989 event that still ranks as the country’s worst mass shooting in its history, a deranged young man driven by misogynistic antagonism towards the female engineering students of the Montreal Polytechnique School went on an unchecked shooting spree that left fifteen dead (including himself via suicide), fourteen more injured, and countless others with deep emotional scars.
Thirty years later, the French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve would recreate the event for his third feature, POLYTECHNIQUE (2009). He had been away from cinema screens for nine years, raising his children at home until he found a project compelling enough to justify his return.
He had been approached by producer and actress Karine Vanasse, who had been lobbying to make the film for several years prior (1), and agreed with her argument that enough time had passed to appropriately address the event in a cinematic context, using it as a touchstone for a larger discussion about gun violence in a climate where school shootings were occurring in the USA with increasing regularity (2).
In reopening these national wounds to examine the trauma therein, the creative team — comprised of Villeneuve, Vanasse, screenwriters Jacque David & Eric Leca, and co-producers Maxim Rémillard, Don Carmody, and André Rouleau — knew they faced a veritable minefield of sensitivity and scrutiny. As such, they set about crafting a stark, hyper-focused storyline fractured into several viewpoints, through which the audience could experience and process the magnitude of terror on display.
For Villeneuve himself, POLYTECHNIQUE would be an opportunity to press his particular voice into the service of serious introspection, in exchange for catapulting his own artistic profile onto the cinematic world stage.
In recreating the full scope of that fateful day’s trauma, POLYTECHNIQUE splits its perspective into a triad of narrative figureheads. Vanasse herself plays Valérie, a mechanical engineering student who is up for a prestigious internship in the commercial aviation industry.
Her naturalistic performance benefits from a great deal of research conducted before the shoot, which included talking directly to the survivors and the family members of the slain women. One particular anecdote that would inform her performance came from a survivor who didn’t identify with the “feminist” label that the shooter affixed to his targets, but found that the ordeal was “the first time in her life she had to confront her femininity head-on” (1).
Vanasse clings to this sentiment in her portrayal of Valérie, projecting a deep feminine strength driven by optimism over the future— even as that future is suddenly thrown into immediate danger. Indeed, the triumph of hope over despair forms the through-line of Valérie’s story. By the time of her fateful encounter with the shooter, she’s already been made painfully aware of the liability that her womanhood possesses in her particular educational environment; an earlier scene finds an important interview quickly derailed by her interviewer’s casual misogyny, born of his inherent expectation that only men can seriously pursue a career in engineering.
It’s an illuminating episode that casts POLYTECHNIQUE as an examination of the full spectrum of misogyny — from seemingly-harmless indifference to outright hostility. Furthermore, it positions Valérie’s character as a direct repudiation to The Killer’s hateful manifesto: his actions are premeditated on the belief that his own ambitions in the field are disadvantaged by an imbalanced focus on diversity at the expense of merit, while her experience shows that, in the harsh light of reality, the exact opposite is true.
While cinema may be routinely described as an “empathy machine”, capable of presenting disparate viewpoints to illustrate a broader truth about the human experience, POLYTECHNIQUE’s decision to humanize The Killer himself by installing him as one of the story’s three figureheads feels gravely misguided considering the proliferation of gun violence in American schools over the last several years.
There’s a tendency in art & media to humanize our monsters; to probe their psyches in search of an explanation for the horrors they’ve unleashed on the world. In the process, however, they are raised up into quasi-mythological figures while their victims are anonymized.
POLYTECHNIQUE has the good sense not to give its Killer a name, but it nevertheless endeavors to extend its empathetic gaze to the quiet, antisocial and militantly misogynistic young man who feels so aggrieved and threatened by members of the opposite sex that the only logical course of action is total extermination. Villeneuve introduces this young man, played by Maxim Gaudette, writing up his manifesto in the bedroom of his dingy apartment with the self-congratulating bravado of a revolutionary.
And yet, he just barely possesses the courage of his convictions, almost losing his nerve altogether and abandoning his plot at the last second. The humanity of his monstrosity is that he is an utter coward, unwilling to look inside himself and take personal responsibility for his perceived shortcomings. Instead, he projects his false sense of persecution onto an external “Other” that can be easily defined within the narrow confines of a conspiratorial mind— and who conveniently happens to be completely defenseless when he ultimately decides to act.
Gaudette’s committed performance aside, POLYTECHNIQUE’s excursions into his mental state compromises its primary focus on the victims— the source of the film’s visceral power. Considering that some critics initially faulted Villeneuve for not going deep enough into the Killer’s psyche, the now-archaic impression of this creative decision nonetheless illustrates how far the gun violence debate has evolved in the past decade.
As mentioned previously, POLYTECHNIQUE employs a fragmented non-linear structure, positioning Valérie’s story as the fulcrum upon which the other perspectives are balanced. All roads lead to a single convergence: the Killer’s storming of a classroom in which Valérie, her friend & roommate Stéphanie (Evelyn Brochu) and Sébastien Huberdeau’s fellow male student Jean-Francois are in attendance.
The Killer separates the men from the women and commands the men to leave the room before proceeding to gun down the women. We see this event multiple times, each time from differing perspectives that reveals new information and reminds us of the fluid subjectivity of Villeneuve’s storytelling. For a large chunk of the film’s middle section, Villeneuve diverges from his focus on the shooting to follow the character of Jean-Francois in the days and weeks following the massacre.
We know very little about him prior to the shooting, but we do know he has a friendly (and possibly an unrequited romantic) connection to Valérie, which Villeneuve exploits to position the two as representative opposites. If Valérie signifies hope in the face of unimaginable tragedy, then Jean-Francois is despair.
A momentary — and very understandable — lapse in courage leads Jean-Francois to assign personal blame to himself for the loss of his classmates. At this point, Villeneuve hits pause on his minute-by-minute recreation of the shooting to follow Jean-Francois in the aftermath; we watch him grasp for a semblance of normalcy by visiting his mother in the countryside, only to find he ultimately can’t cope with this new, broken reality.
But, as the old saying goes, it is always darkest before the dawn, and the bleak conclusion of Jean-Francois’ story doubles back into the pivotal classroom massacre, replanting our perspective into the character of Valérie so that we can witness the triumph of one’s recommitment to living life to its fullest.
At this relatively early point in Villeneuve’s career, one can see how his aesthetic evolves as he finds his truest voice. His recent films have mostly conformed to a predetermined, monolithic visual style, but POLYTECHNIQUE serves as an example of form following function.
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The most immediate aspect of its image, captured on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, is the black and white presentation— a somber reflection of serious subject matter that has the added bonus of depriving your garden-variety gorehound the thrill of copious bloodshed. Working with cinematographer Pierre Gill, Villeneuve sheds the heavy-handed psychodrama conceits of MAELSTROM in favor of a naturalistic, quasi-documentary approach that favors a roaming, restless camera.
Switching at will between handheld setups and stabilized tracking movements, Villeneuve and Gill create the impression of a subjective intelligence, ducking and weaving along with the students as they scramble for shelter amidst the chaos.
Production designer Roger Martin echoes this non-sensationalistic approach with an authentic period recreation that never calls attention to itself. Nothing about the costumes or the set dressing screams “1989”— a deliberate creative decision which, combined with the black and white photography, lends a timeless feel to the mise-en-scene that only reinforces its emotional resonance as a cautionary tale about the ever-present specter of gun violence.
A few diegetic needledrops — specifically, Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance” and an obscure cover of “Tainted Love” — serve as our best indicators of POLYTECHNIQUE’s time period, but by and large, Villeneuve foregoes pre-existing tracks from the late 80’s in favor of a spare, atmospheric score by Benoit Charest. Charest’s cues, orchestrated primarily with the piano and violin, complements the picture without calling attention to itself, further reinforcing Villeneuve’s laser-like focus on the visceral terror of the experience.
Despite its near-180-degree turn from MAELSTROM’s decidedly-theatrical tone, POLYTECHNIQUE still provides a glimpse into the burgeoning thematic and artistic conceits that have since solidified into the backbone of Villeneuve’s unique aesthetic. One of the few male directors with a particular interest in, and sensitivity to, female protagonists, Villeneuve uses POLYTECHNIQUE as an opportunity to explore the idea of femininity under siege.
The Killer’s victims find themselves in his crosshairs solely for the simple — yet entirely nonsensical — offense of lacking a Y chromosome. The film hammers home the helplessness of being targeted for such arbitrary reasons, showing us no shortage of images where the Killer passively sits back and lets the male students run away with their lives intact.
It may be an extreme example of the injustices that women at all levels of society suffer on a daily basis, but it is nevertheless one that is occurring with frightening regularity. Villeneuve’s ability to transform mundane environments into foreboding landscapes in seeming possession of a malevolent omniscience transforms the banal utilitarianism of an educational facility into a claustrophobic labyrinth of death.
While the actual Montreal Polytechnique School availed its campus for Villeneuve’s use, he chose not to do so out of respect to the victims (3), instead conforming an alternate location better suited to his thematic pursuits. Beyond his staging of the school as a literal shooting barrel, Villeneuve also shows us desolate urban housing projects and the rural exurbs covered in a heavy blanket of crisp snow— a reflection of the chilly economic conditions that fuel the Killer’s actions as well as a reinforcement of the film’s core theme of hope in the face of unspeakable bleakness.
While Villeneuve’s somber approach defers to respectful realism, he does allow himself a few moments of artistic indulgence; nowhere is this more evident than his inclusion of two aerial shots, inverted along their Y axis so as to convey an abstract uneasiness and dread.
For example, a shot of snowy countryside as seen from the air seems less like we’re looking out the windows of a plane, and more like we’re being dangled upside-down from the fuselage. Another shot — the final one in the film — finds the camera pushing down a symmetrical school hallway, but the composition would suggest that we’re crawling on the ceiling— a visual manifestation of Villeneuve’s parting statement that these students have just had their worlds turned upside-down. Forever.
Initially released in Quebec before playing at the Director’s Fortnight program of the Cannes Film Festival, POLYTECHNIQUE proved that he hadn’t lost his artistic relevance in the nine years he’d been away. Positive critical notices drove a healthy box office run, which then translated to a showering of awards. The Genie Awards — the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars — awarded POLYTECHNIQUE with wins in no less than nine categories, including Best Motion Picture.
In recreating one of the darkest chapters of Canada’s history with an understated style and grace, Villeneuve had managed to install himself at the forefront of the country’s film industry. No doubt the siren call of Hollywood was already beckoning, luring him away with the promise of even greater magnitudes of success.
However, he was already hard at work on his next project, having set it up once again with a Canadian production company. His ultimate migration to the American studio system was inevitable — and imminent — but in the meantime he would use his home-court advantage to reinforce the strong foundations that his first three features had built.
“120 SECONDS TO GET ELECTED” (2006)
While director Denis Villeneuve had reportedly vowed not to end his self-imposed sabbatical from feature filmmaking until he found a suitably-compelling project, the short format evidently didn’t require the same high bar of scrutiny. Six years after the making of MAELSTROM (2000), Villeneuve would return with an extremely brief, yet hard-hitting, effort.
Clocking in at its titular two minutes, 120 SECONDS TO GET ELECTED (2006) finds Villeneuve experimenting with the industry’s nascent ability to shoot on a cell phone in the depiction of an unnamed politician delivering a fiery speech to a crowd. Played by actor Alexis Martin, the politician races to convey his message, which begins as a rambling, disconnected stream of passionate buzzwords before quickly coagulating into a fascist screed that whips his audience into a frenzy.
Using the same narrative/documentary hybrid approach he brought to his debut short REW FFW (1994), Villeneuve adopts a monochromatic aesthetic to blend a static close-up of the politician’s face with (presumably) pre-existing crowd footage shot at a rally. A recurring series of hard-hitting text intertitles punctuate the politician’s speech by repeating key words and phrases, becoming something of an ideological hammer bludgeoning us with his forceful rhetoric.
If Villeneuve’s natural talents as a filmmaker weren’t evident before, 120 SECONDS TO GET ELECTED handily accomplishes that goal by demonstrating how effortlessly he can construct the implication of a larger world beyond the confines of the frame in a matter of minutes. In foregoing the mentioning of any particular nationality in favor of pure political ideology, Villeneuve creates a dystopic,1984-style landscape saturated with the horror of creeping fascism.
A prime example of the fiery, countercultural politics that infuses Villleneuve’s early work, 120 SECONDS TO GET ELECTED draws a direct comparison to the manipulative populism of Hitler, showing how easily charisma and the project of authority can be deployed in the service of insidious ends. At the same time, it predicts the incoherent & reactionary isolationist policies that would deliver Donald Trump and his ghoulish cronies to the White House ten years later.
Though its origins as a short cell phone video might position 120 SECONDS TO GET ELECTED as something of a lark within Villeneuve’s filmography, it nevertheless sharpens his storytelling abilities; honing his artistic instincts for the major works to come.
“NEXT FLOOR” (2008)
The short film format, arguably even more so than the conventional feature-length, possesses the capacity to showcase the medium of cinema at its highest ideal. Freed from the constraints of narrative expectation, the short film can fly its freak flag sky-high as it ventures out into open water in search of artistic experimentation, innovation and expression.
That being said, there does tend to be a kind of “stigma” surrounding short films, as if they were a minor or lesser form of motion picture because they aren’t as easily commodified or exploited on the same commercial scale as feature films, or because they’re often regarded as a training ground for emerging filmmakers to make mistakes while developing their voice. Yet, the medium endures as a staple of film festivals worldwide, given even greater exposure thanks to the rise of internet video platforms & streaming.
Some filmmakers work exclusively in one format or the other, while others have a seemingly-effortless ability to switch between the two. Director Denis Villeneuve has proven himself as a member of the latter, especially in the context of his 2008 short, NEXT FLOOR. Made during a break in production on his 2009 feature POLYTECHNIQUE (and released shortly before), NEXT FLOOR adds narrative economy to Villeneuve’s technical and world building skills.
Telling a story initially conceived by producer Phoebe Greenberg, Villeneuve paints a grotesquely absurd portrait of wanton gluttony: eleven guests voraciously dine on exotic animals while attended to by a crack team of servers. They keep serving, and the diners keep eating. Eventually, their combined (and growing) weight causes the whole party to crash down to the floor below. A brief dust-off, and the dinner resumes anew at even faster pace, and the cycle repeats. All the while, the servers hustle downward, one floor at a time, setting and re-setting the dinner before the diners fall through again.
Running at a scant eleven minutes, NEXT FLOOR achieves its darkly-comic resonance via the power of suggestion. There’s no dialogue, save for the lead butler frequently commanding his staff to prepare the “next floor”, each utterance taking on more weight as the party eats its way downward.
One gets the distinct impression of a metaphorical or allegorical approach on Villeneuve’s part— in an article for Indiewire, journalist Zach Hollwedel theorizes that this grungy, nondescript industrial tower is Hell; each floor representing one of the fabled Circles (1). Indeed, one gets the sense that these guests — each clad in garb that signifies their elite status (tuxedos, military dress uniforms, elegant gowns) — are being punished for their wanton gluttony in life, thrown into the visual equivalent of a downward Shepherd tone with no bottom.
As they consume the endless array of increasingly-elaborate exotic meats, it becomes clear these guests simply cannot stop. Only one character, a blonde socialite, seems to possess the self-awareness of shame or contrition. Villeneuve’s camera, which frenziedly roams the opulently macabre spread like it can’t decide what to gorge on first, repeatedly dwells on her character with a calm, penetrating gaze.
Closeups reveal her silent tears, which might go unnoticed amidst the caked layer of dust coating her face if not for the snaking grooves of water. We see her despair at the realization that she’s damned to this awful eternity.
From a technical standpoint, NEXT FLOOR points to Villeneuve’s gradual transition from rough-hewn, punk iconoclasm to a foreboding formalism. Shooting with a fine-grain film stock, Villeneuve and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc imbue the image with a cold, greenish cast reminiscent of THE MATRIX TRILOGY, giving the proceedings a sickly feel.
Extreme closeups of meat garishly-prepared to varying degrees of rawness punctuate Villeneuve’s frequent use of rack zooms. These zooms repeatedly telescope in and out at different speeds, oftentimes in the same shot, echoing the feeding frenzy on display. Other notable aesthetic touches include the deployment of opening & closing credits that scroll up counter to the infinite downward trajectory of the action, as well as the juxtaposition of diegetic classical music performed by a string quartet against the steady beat of low, primal drums.
NEXT FLOOR premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, marking the first time that Villeneuve’s work had been seen on cinema screens in eight years. After receiving the Canal+ prize for Best Short in the Semaine De La Critique category, NEXT FLOOR went on to screen at Toronto. The larger success of POLYTECHNIQUE — and Villeneuve’s full-throated return to filmmaking — was still around the corner, but NEXT FLOOR would provide audiences a brief, yet unforgettable, glimpse of the artist’s considerable development during his sabbatical.
For most of the 2000’s, director Denis Villeneuve was a semi-notable Canadian filmmaker in the midst of a self-imposed sabbatical. Despite his stunning successes in his home country’s awards circuit, he had grown disenfranchised with his profession, and focused instead on raising his children until he found material compelling enough to justify a return.
The project that would ultimately herald his comeback— 2009’s POLYTECHNIQUE— was still some years away, but the material that would constitute an even-more consequential project was unexpectedly imminent. In 2004, he attended a play in Montreal by the playwright Wadji Mouawad. Titled “Scorched”, Mouawad’s play spun a harrowing tale about heritage and family set against the traumatic unrest of the Middle East.
As he sat and watched, Villeneuve grew acutely aware he was witnessing, in his words, a “masterpiece” (3). He had no personal connection to the material on the basis of its geopolitical backdrop, but its undercurrents of Greek tragedy resonated strongly enough that he began to piece together a film adaptation as a potential project (4).
First, he had to overcome Mouawad’s initial misgivings about such an undertaking, earning his blessing off the strength of a few early pages of screenplay (3). After nearly five years and writing and re-writing, Villeneuve and his co-writer Valérie Beaugrand-Champagne fashioned an adaptation so strong that Mouawad declined credit altogether (3). The resulting film, 2010’s INCENDIES, would build on POLYTECHNIQUE’s success and become a pivotal turning point in Villeneuve’s career, opening the door to his eventual destiny at the forefront of the American studio system.
A French word for “conflagrations” or “fires”, INCENDIES draws significant inspiration from the life of Lebanese author and activist Souha Bechara (5) in its telling of the fictional Marwan family’s turbulent past and hopeful future. Villeneuve and Beaugrand-Champagne’s screenplay employs a two-pronged structure, cutting between Canada and the fictional Middle Eastern country Daresh as effortlessly as it swaps the present timeline with a parallel plot set sometime in the 1970’s.
We’re first introduced to Jeanne and Simon Marwan, a pair of adult twins living in Canada who have been tasked via their late mother’s will to travel back to Daresh and deliver handwritten letters to a father and brother they’ve never met. Jeanne, played by renowned Canadian actress Mélissa Désourmeaux-Palin, is quiet and reserved, yet probing and tenacious. Simon, by contrast, is impatient and stubborn, given the suggestion of a deep-seated rage by the casting of Maxim Gaudette, who previously appeared as The Killer in Villeneuve’s POLYTECHNIQUE.
The journey to their ancestral homeland is nothing short of a total reckoning, shattering their most deeply-held beliefs about their roots with the revelation of their long-lost father and brother’s identities.
As the twins retrace their mother’s steps through a war-torn Daresh, causing agitated whispers and reopening old wounds every time they mention her name, Villeneuve toggles back and forth to the 1970’s to chronicle the hardships endured by their mother, Nawal Marwan, a young political activist and revolutionary who came to be known by her oppressors as “The Woman Who Sings”.
Actress Lubna Azabar powerfully portrays Nawal over a wide range of ages (she even plays the character as seen in her 60’s, shortly before her death). Caught in the crossfire of an explosive, bloody war between the country’s Christian and Muslim sects (evocative of the Lebanese Civil War), Nawal’s personal story quickly becomes entangled with the major political movements that crash around her.
Her story begins in disgrace, thrown into exile as a result of bearing a baby out of wedlock— an event in which she just barely escapes an honor killing at the hands of her own brothers. She searches the countryside for the orphanage that her son was placed into, only to find it destroyed. Her search continues for several more years, enduring the slaughter and destruction wrought by sweeping revolution to cultivate an extraordinary strength and resilience that eventually carries her across the ocean, towards the domestic tranquility of the West.
Safely ensconced in Canada, she raises a family of her own while fostering a quiet career as a secretary under the employ of Notaire Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard), but it’s only a matter of time until she finds that the lingering threads of her embattled history have followed her into her new life.
The performances that drive harrowing power of INCENDIES are bolstered by the sophisticated strength of Villeneuve’s technical approach. If it can be said that his films are distinguished by a certain sense of foreboding or intimidating weight, then INCENDIES arguably stands as the first major work with his solidified aesthetic at play.
Working once again with his MAELSTROM cinematographer André Turpin, Villeneuve adopts a kind of formal precision to his 1.85:1 compositions, combining the smooth clarity of Zeiss master prime lenses with the organic quality of fine-grain Super 35mm film.
Considered camerawork, a restrained color palette that savors contrast over saturation, and a patient pace that savors the long take all work in harmony to yield a subtle yet confident sense of directorial control— even when Villeneuve and Turpin employ the relative chaos of handheld photography, or the narrative pauses its realism to indulge in the impressionism of slow-motion.
INCENDIES’ core technical challenge lies in differentiating and accentuating the narrative’s dual geographical and temporal structure. This challenge compounds when considering that the production’s slim budget allowed for only fifteen days on location in and around Amman, Jordan, meaning that the majority of the film had to be shot in Villeneuve’s inescapably-Western home country of Canada. Towards this end, light and color become crucial components of the film’s approach.
Eschewing the conventional practice of using text to signify different time periods, Villeneuve and Turpin turn to natural light as a way to distinguish between Nawal’s journey through Daresh in the 1970’s and her daughter Jeanne’s contemporary pilgrimage— itself meant to flow effortlessly back into Nawal’s story as a way to bridge the vast time gap and evoke a shared experience.
Hard sunlight casts stark shadows over modern-day sequences, while a diffuse, dusky glow bathes the 70’s timeline. Similarly, color works to quickly orient the audience in geographical space, all while predicting the particular aesthetic of several Villeneuve films to come. Cold earth tones reminiscent of his later aesthetic with PRISONERS (2013) place the onscreen action in Canada, while the burned-out desert palette that characterizes SICARIO (2015) finds its origins in INCENDIES’ fictional Daresh.
The additional touch of red block text intertitles also helps to place the viewer in time and space, acting more like chapter headings than lower-third indicators. Composer Grégoire Hetzel provides a spare orchestral score punctuated with female vocals, but the core of INCENDIES’ musical identity belongs to Radiohead. Two needledrops in particular — “Like Spinning Plates” and “You and Whose Army” become a recurring motif throughout the film, with the latter track having been a foundational aspect of Villeneuve’s vision since inception. The piece provides a haunting, downtempo character that complements the dark mystery at the heart of the proceedings.
In adapting Mouawad’s source play for the screen, Villeneuve’s attraction to the material becomes readily apparent. He employs his pet themes to mold the story in his own image, which changes Mouawad’s source material rather drastically so that Villeneuve can bring a sense of lived-in authenticity to a backdrop he isn’t necessarily familiar with.
The use of Girard’s Notaire Jean Lebel character becomes crucial in this regard, as Villeneuve’s own father worked as a notary. As such, Villeneuve’s beginning of the story in Lebel’s office (meticulously modeled after the director’s father’s actual office (2)) establishes a necessary baseline of authenticity that grounds the rest of the action.
Said action distinguishes itself as a story about pain as inheritance, and the dark secrets hidden in lineage, with its matriarchal perspective harmonizing rather effortlessly with the many other female protagonists that populate his filmography. Far more than the “strong women” stock types that other directors prescribe masculine characteristics to, Villeneuve roots his protagonists’ strength in their fundamental femininity.
From POLYTECHNIQUE to later works like SICARIO and ARRIVAL, these women assert themselves with formidable, STEM-styled intelligence that more than makes up for any perceived physical vulnerability. This is certainly true of Jeanne Marwal, who is seen early on in INCENDIES inhabiting the world of academia before setting off alone to Daresh— not to conquer, but to listen; to gather the pieces of her mother’s puzzle, in the hopes that bringing her tragic past to light will serve as some kind of posthumous redemption.
The flashback sequences depicting her mother, Nawal, highlight the character’s political activism as well as a courage and resilience that only motherhood can provide. Indeed, after flirting with the theme in MAELSTROM, Villeneuve’s signature artistic interest in motherhood as an active dramatic concept emerges in full bloom with INCENDIES.
If traditional patriarchal lineage can be said to imbue subsequent generations with a sociopolitical identity — class, status, property, the perpetuation of old rivalries — then matriarchal lineage, at least as defined by Villeneuve’s worldview, passes down its reverberations: resilience, foresight, the need for protection, the burial of secrets… and the laying of contingencies for their eventual unearthing.
The revelation of dark family secrets is usually done reluctantly and only when absolutely necessary, to spare one’s children of needless pain and burden. The drawn-out unveiling of Nawal Marwan’s harrowing past acts, conversely, as catharsis— “the truth shall set you free”. While her decades-long search for her son ends while she’s still alive to know his identity, the fulfillment of her character’s arc must happen posthumously.
Only by passing on the truth to her twin children via a mission assigned from beyond the grave can she finally absolve herself of the shame that prevented her from doing so in life. Only then will she allow herself to rest; to be buried in a proper grave that commemorates the tremendous sacrifices she made to give her children a better life in the west.
From the relatively-grounded backdrops of INCENDIES and PRISONERS to BLADE RUNNER 2049’s fictional futurescape, Villeneuve underscores the brutality of these worlds (real and fictional alike) by anchoring our experience of them within the feminine perspective. Hard, oppressive environments are a signature of Villeneuve’s filmography— he’s becoming something of a master in the crafting of realistic dystopias, imbuing otherwise-ordinary landscapes with an aura of ominousness or foreboding.
However, to hear the director talk in interviews or audio commentaries, these cold, inhospitable conditions don’t necessarily correlate with his own worldview; indeed, one gets the impression that he considers himself an artist with a deep sensitivity to the fragile beauty of life.
By generating narrative sympathy for characters whose physicality or vulnerability could be considered more “delicate” — at least as it relates to conventional, deeply-entrenched attitudes of masculinity as a celebration of brute strength and stoicism — Villeneuve can better highlight the virtues of feminine fortitude. With its depiction of a fictional country torn asunder by political and religious conflict, INCENDIES crystallizes Villeneuve’s fascination with the ways in which women maneuver brutal, barbaric worlds built without regard for them.
Throughout INCENDIES, Villeneuve displays ample evidence of his maturing voice, finding confidence and authority in the dramatic power of the material instead of stylistic flourishes or techniques. Its reception would build on the previous success he encountered on the awards circuit, premiering at Venice and Toronto before making a splash with American audiences at Sundance and Telluride.
Critics generally praised the film, with a few noting their distaste for the film’s length and melodramatic touches (both aspects, ironically, would go on to become a core part of Villeneuve’s artistic approach)(6). These positive notices would drive a modest box office run, generating $16 million against a $6 million budget— maybe not very impressive by Variety’s standards, but enough to deliver Villeneuve a Best Foreign Language Film nomination at the Oscars and an opportunity to cross over into the American studio system.
Indeed, INCENDIES would be the last work Villeneuve completed while toiling under the relative obscurity of the Canadian film industry before his invasion of Hollywood, and wins for Best Motion Picture and Best Director at the Canadian Genie Awards provided a suitably prestigious send off.
A decade on since its release, it has become quite clear that INCENDIES completes the foundation laid by MAELSTROM and POLYTECHNIQUE, becoming the cornerstone upon which Villeneuve could build the monolithic works that would deliver him to the forefront of mainstream studio filmmaking.
Following the international breakout success of his 2010 feature, INCENDIES, director Denis Villeneuve found himself perched on the precipice of a career in the American studio system. Before taking the plunge, however, he’d indulge himself with a pair of short experimental art films— neither of which appear to be available to the public currently.
The first, which boasts the admittedly unwieldy title of ETUDE EMPIRIQUE SUR L’INFLUENCE DU SON SUR LA PERSISTANCE RÉTINIENNE (2011), is apparently more akin to an art installation than a short film in the conventional sense. Running for just one minute, the film is described by IMDB as a “series of flashing green and red screens set to music”.
Reportedly, this creates the illusion of different patterns in the mind’s eye, all of which react to the music. The second, RATED R FOR NUDITY, concerns itself with three acts that unfold during an “experimental session of attempted mass hypnosis” (1). Without seeing either, it’s difficult to speculate on how they fit into Villeneuve’s body of work.
Going by their IMDB descriptions alone, however, it’s not a stretch to imagine them as experimental manifestations of his ongoing exploration of the “psychosphere”— a term recently coined by the creators of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE which attempts to describe the general ambience that arises from a collective cultural psyche; the interior state manifest within the visual world. In retrospect, it’s clear that this theoretical state was set to become a dominant aspect of Villeneuve’s artistic aesthetic.
While Villeneuve was at work on these experimental art projects, the project that would become his American studio debut was quietly circulating through the paces of development. After landing a coveted top spot on the 2009 Blacklist, an annual listing of the best-liked scripts as determined by industry executives, writer Aaron Guzikowski’s original script, “Prisoners”, found itself the subject of serious attention (1).
First set up as a directing vehicle for Bryan Singer starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, the project’s long development cycle saw names as varied as Antoine Fuqua and Leonardo DiCaprio attached before ultimately securing a director in the guise of the rapidly-ascendant Villeneuve.
Working from a $46 million product budget overseen by producers Andrew A. Kosove, Kira David, Adam Kolbrenner, and Broderick Johnson, Villeneuve would prove to be an inspired choice: the escalating technical and thematic sophistication of his French-language Canadian films makes for a rock-solid foundation upon which PRISONERS’ bold narrative twists and somber aura of mystery could stand firm against any wary audience disbelief. One of the standout films of the 2010’s, PRISONERS is something of a herald, announcing the arrival of a towering new voice in American film.
PRISONERS takes its title from the notion that we are all prisoners to our respective traumas, forced to live with the consequences of our actions or the actions of others. This sentiment hangs over the film like a death shroud, deepening what could otherwise have easily been a pulpy genre tale about the search for a kidnapped child.
Set in contemporary, exurban Pennsylvania, the story assumes the clashing perspectives of Keller Dover and Detective Loki: two men who share the same goal: find and rescue a pair of little girls who seemingly vanished into the thin air of a cold Thanksgiving afternoon.
Dover, played by a never-better Hugh Jackman as an increasingly desperate father quickly running out of patience with the laws of man, finds that the only way he’s going to find his daughter alive is to turn to lawlessness.
He’s a faithful, devout Christian confronted with an evil he can’t comprehend, and in trying to confront it, he quickly falls into darkness himself.
Evoking the political reaction to the devastation of 9/11 and the subsequent manhunt for those responsible, Dover takes to abducting his only lead and spiriting him away to a hidden location, brutally torturing him until he gets the information he wants. A swirl of timely socioeconomic factors compound his desperation— he’s a recovering alcoholic and the downwardly-mobile owner of a small carpentry business.
His family and his faith are the only things he has, so this particular problem puts him in a position where he can quite literally lose everything. He’s also an avid hunter and survivalist— he’s what we’d know describe as a prepper, his basement obsessively stocked with food and all sorts of supplies in case of emergency.
The irony, of course, is that all the prepping in the world could never prepare him for this emergency. In going to such a profoundly dark place, Jackman capably subverts his charismatic leading-man persona and delivers an unforgettably volatile performance.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who previously worked with Villeneuve on his feature ENEMY (the entire production and release of which would ultimately book-end PRISONERS’ own), portrays Detective Loki as Dover’s equally-haunted inverse: a coyote-like loner with ambiguous morals, his meticulously-manicured “hipster cop” aesthetic a visual signifier of his cool & controlled demeanor.
Driven by a singular focus, he has seemingly shed himself of all extraneous matters— Villeneuve declines to show him with any family, significant others, or hobbies. We don’t even see where he lives. He’s essentially a justice robot, cloaked in an air of mystery as elusive as the one at the film’s story.
That said, Gyllenhaal wisely contours the enigmas of his character with a specificity of physical detail: a greased-down undercut, oxford shirts buttoned to the top with air ties, neck tattoos, and a large gold ring bearing a Freemason symbol— all of which, brilliantly, invite further questions than provide answers.
PRISONERS’ supporting cast features a stacked deck of acclaimed character actors, each of whom carve out further layers of thematic meaning while complementing the ethical quandary at the heart of the story.
Paul Dano and Melissa Leo evocatively embody what one could consider to the narrative’s antagonistic presence, but they too suffer from their own demons in a manner that complicates their moral standing.
Dano plays Alex Jones, an emotionally stunted and troubled young man with the equivalent intelligence of a 10 year old. As the suspected child abductor, he reinforces our cultural expectation of the type of person who would do such a thing— he displays psychopathic tendencies like animal abuse and lives a reclusive life in his dirty RV, for example.
Dano knows this, projecting a frail physicality and a genuinely unnerving creepiness to better lean into our expectations while laying the groundwork to subvert them as Dover’s increasingly-brutal interrogation techniques yield diminishing returns.
Leo, completely unrecognizable under a frumpy wig, coke-bottle glasses, and a foam rubber posterior (1), plays Alex’s “aunt”, Holly Jones.
Determined and deceptive, Holly is perhaps the least complicated character in the film; she’s come to peace with her darkness a long time ago, and has found a coldly efficient way to perpetuate it.
Mario Bello does her best with the underwritten role of Grace Dover, Keller’s wife, throwing every ounce of her talent into a character completely overcome by grief.
Viola Davis, by contrast, enjoys a bit more depth as family friend, Nancy Birch. She belongs to an economic strata more affluent than the Dovers, but finds that even the creature comforts of an upper middle class position can’t protect her family from the unspeakable evils of the world.
Furthermore, she discovers her moral code reaches deeper into ambiguity than she might expect; when confronted with the shock of Dover’s desperate act, she is compelled not to right his wrong, but to simply allow it to happen, hoping it might deliver the results that the authorities so far have been unable to provide. In this context, Terrence Howard asserts himself as her counterweight.
As Franklin Birch, Nancy’s husband and Dover’s best friend, he lacks the stomach for Dover’s methods— he’s a ballast of morality, conflicted nonetheless even as he points out the immorality of Dover’s abduction and subsequent torture of Alex.
PRISONERS begins Villeneuve’s string of collaborations with Roger Deakins, earning the celebrated British cinematographer one of his many Oscar nominations by ushering Villeneuve into the digital age. Whereas all his previous feature-length efforts had been shot on celluloid, here Villeneuve embraces the cold precision of digital for the first time.
His assertive aesthetic loses nothing in the translation, infusing the 1.85:1 image with a foreboding power that stems from the impression of some kind of omniscient malice.
The pristine digital image, sourced at 2.8k resolution on an Arri Alexa using Zeiss Master Prime lenses, reinforces this conceit in a way that the organic warmth of photochemical film cannot.
The wide latitude and color space of Arri’s digital flagship allows Villeneuve and Deakins to create a high contrast look with vanta-black shadows, its palette ably balancing cold earth tones with the incandescent warmth of practical lighting sources.
Compositions reinforce the central aura of suffocating mystery, oftentimes casting characters in silhouette or shooting through framing devices like windows occluded by fogged-up glass or rain streaks.
The handheld, journalistic immediacy of INCENDIES stands down in favor of PRISONERS’ deliberate and formal camera movements— slow dolly pushes and purposeful aerials reinforce the aforementioned sense of omniscience, as if we’ve assumed the perspective of cruel fate itself.
Another key collaborator in Villeneuve’s filmography emerges for the first time here, in the guise of the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. His original score is the perfect complement to Deakins’ monolithic pictorial approach, underlining the unspeakable malice that governs the lives of the film’s characters.
He achieves this via a brooding, ominous suite of droning strings that carry the audience along on a current of dreadful inevitability. Jóhannson’s music is like encountering a tiger or a panther in captivity— one can’t help but admire the beauty and elegance of its form, even though said form exists to make it a perfectly efficient killing machine.
This dark beauty stems from Jóhannsson’s balance of the aforementioned surge of low droning with an understated celestial organ that escalates dramatically; it offers PRISONERS’ characters the possibility of upward ascendancy, or a divine deliverance from the misery of their station. Far from an overtly religious statement, this conceit offers only a small comfort— if not salvation, then a modest grace… just enough to get through the day.
Working with the ample resources afforded by a major American studio, Villeneuve enjoys a broader canvas upon which to paint the colors of his core thematic palette. PRISONERS feels of a piece with earlier works like INCENDIES in Villeneuve’s explorations of maternal fortitude.
With its focus on the male characters of Dover and Keller, Guzikowski’s script yields little room for their female counterparts to fully assert themselves, but Villeneuve’s direction manages to extract as much as possible.
He adopts a kind of “iceberg” approach to his realization of Grace Dover, Nancy Birch, and Holly Jones, using what little information he has to convey the multitude of characterization that lurks underneath the surface. In the case of Nancy and Holly in particular, Villeneuve highlights the lengths to which mothers (and in Holly’s case, “aunts”) will go to protect their children.
We expect a mother to “do anything” for her child, but in the extreme case of abduction Villeneuve shows us what “anything” really means: with Nancy, it means looking the other way in the face of torture; with Holly, maternal desire to protect her “nephew” is twisted and perverted by the delusions required to perform evil acts.
Villeneuve’s singular ability to convey a towering, intimidating atmosphere finds a suitable conduit in PRISONERS’ Pennsylvania setting. By not naming the specific city or town in which the action takes place, he creates a kind of mythical impression of the Keystone State.
We get a sense we may be somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, although in truth we are actually somewhere in rural Georgia (have to love those production tax credits!)(3).
The conscious decision to place the story in working-class, Rust Belt America adds an extra layer of socio-political resonance to the film— one that has only grown more salient as time passes. The last two presidential election cycles have placed an acute focus on Pennsylvania, designating it as the political battleground for a divisive culture war.
A once-mighty bastion of American industry, the state has been struggling with the unintended economic fallout of globalization and green energy initiatives in a decades-long fight for survival. There’s a lot worth fighting for: its natural landscape is supremely beautiful, every acre thoroughly soaked in the stories of American nation-building.
Villeneuve faces a formidable challenge in transforming such a setting into an intimidating, formidable one as per his creative prerogatives, ultimately achieving it by evoking his characters’ interior states.
Placing the action in the days following Thanksgiving allows for a natural, autumnal gloominess — a tangible weight to the air — that underlines their desperation with an overwhelming sense of helplessness.
In this context, the setting and the passage of time has added extra dimension to the film’s exploration of the morality of vigilantism and of Jackman’s character of Dover, in particular.
When PRISONERS was released, the “prepper” lifestyle — an involving (some might say obsessive) hobby popular among rural American men that concerns the accumulation and storage of survival supplies like food and weapons in a basement or underground bunker, for use in the event of natural or manmade disaster — was a cultural curiosity; a harmless way for zombie apocalypse enthusiasts to live out their fantasies of defending the homestead from the brain-eating horde.
However, sometime in the past decade, the sentiment has curdled; goaded on by conspiracy theories about “false flag” shooting events designed as a pretext for the eradication of Second Amendment rights (or cabals of political and entertainment industry elites secretly partaking in satanic, pedophilic sex rituals) that harmless desire to protect one’s family in an extreme scenario has evolved into a cancerous, accelerationist activism.
Look no further than this January’s horrific riot at the Capitol, whereby these kinds of people effectively became the zombie horde themselves as they violently invaded the sacred halls of American power to assert their political will against the voting majority.
We’re meant to sympathize with Dover’s plight in PRISONERS, and anyone with children of their own certainly does, but given his self-righteousness and willingness to reduce himself to brutality and dehumanization, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think his face might have been amongst those storming the Capitol on January 6th, 2021.
All of this is to say that Villeneuve generates a palpable sense of interior and exterior decay throughout the film— a depreciation of natural landscape, economic mobility, moral righteousness, even male virility (albeit in the guise of the impotence Dover first feels in being unable to protect his family and subsequently in the carrying out of torture that corrodes his soul while providing no useful information).
The result is, despite the otherwise idyllic exurban environs, an oppressive and foreboding character that’s superimposed upon the setting— and a firm continuation of Villeneuve’s ability to transform the mundane into a psychospheric waking nightmare.
Though this quality was nothing new to Canadian audiences and the international cinema community, it nonetheless positioned Villeneuve to the American megaplex set as a forceful and supernaturally-assured new voice.
Perhaps his migration (some may say ascent) to the Hollywood studio system was inevitable, but few could have predicted that his voice would only grow more uncompromising in the process. Indeed, his grandiose vision only benefits from the lavish resources to be found behind studio gates, and the prestige of his international background seems to keep executive meddling to a minimum.
This evident reverence comes not from PRISONERS’ success — a splashy Telluride premiere drove positive reviews and plenty of awards chatter but would only yield modest box office receipts — but rather from the undeniable promise of his talent. Look no further than the example of a beautifully-rendered race to the hospital at story’s climax, which displays a burgeoning mastery of kinetic action suffused with poignant characterization and an evocative atmosphere dripping with blood, rain and snow.
A visually and emotionally stunning set piece, it suggests Villeneuve as a studio filmmaker akin to someone like Christopher Nolan: one who can deliver stimulating spectacle heavily suffused with thematic and extra-textual meaning. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination, had Warner Brothers decided to continue the DARK KNIGHT series without its creator, they very well might have seen Villeneuve as the heir apparent.
Nevertheless, it’s clear that Warner Brothers now counts him among Nolan, Clint Eastwood, and a select few others, as one of their premiere house filmmakers (the recent HBOMax debacle about moving the studio’s entire 2021 slate to streaming, however, may have made the feeling less mutual, what with the upcoming DUNE — arguably Villeneuve’s biggest film to date — now on the line).
But all of that would lay in the future. An incredibly strong run of films had already begun: one that would make the already-successful first act of his career a mere prelude.
Since his debut in the American studio system with 2013’s PRISONERS, director Denis Villeneuve has steadily carved out a monolithic space for himself as that rare breed of big budget filmmaker who can effortlessly combine a mastery of visceral spectacle with a superlative storytelling intelligence.
Films like SICARIO (2015), ARRIVAL (2016) and BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017) firmly foreground themselves in the established visual grammar and relatively-narrow narrative parameters of their respective genres, yet they all resonate with a broader psychological subtext about the bleaker aspects of the human condition.
This hybrid form — referred to by Villeneuve himself as “psychodrama” — is a singular creative trait that unifies his body of work, from his 1994 short debut REW FFW to (assumedly) his upcoming adaptation of DUNE.
While his films are often steeped in a harrowing sense of realism, as in SICARIO, POLYTECHNIQUE (2009) or INCENDIES (2010), Villeneuve’s signature approach arguably finds its most potent application in more surreal, dreamlike works like MAELSTROM.
None of the aforementioned films, however, can hold a candle to the pure, unadulterated nightmare-scape that is his 2013 feature, ENEMY.
Indeed, ENEMY is so soaked in the atmosphere of the subconscious and the act of dreaming that it oftentimes feels like a film that doesn’t actually exist. A subliminal tangle of contradictions and intentional opacity, it is both a last-chance grasp at art house freedom and a retreat from the Hollywood system.
The entirety of its production and release bookends that of PRISONERS’, shooting before that film and released after its completion in a manner that makes it somewhat unclear where to place the film in a chronological exploration of Villeneuve’s wider canon.
It’s almost like a film that blipped into our existence from an alternate universe. It’s not just otherworldly— its unreal.
The circumstances of its making, of course, are much more mundane. Based on the novel “The Double”, by Jóse Saramago, ENEMY was a joint production between Canadian and Spanish film companies, written by Javier Gullón, produced by Miguel A.
Far & Niv Fichman, and shot in Toronto— a city used so often as a Hollywood backlot stand-in for generic urban environments that it just might have been the ultimate Anonymous City had it not been for the Space Needle-esque CN Tower. However, it’s exactly this anonymous quality that lends ENEMY its dreamlike power.
Wikipedia describes the story’s genre as a “surrealist Neo-noir psychological thriller mystery”— a jumble of evocative words that ultimately doesn’t mean anything. Genre only means as much to Villeneuve’s efforts as it can convey the archetypical grammar of our collective subconscious. ENEMY operates more along the lines of allegory or parable, its key story beats strung together by hazy dream logic and sinewy spider silk.
Most people know of Jake Gyllenhaal’s haunted performance for Villeneuve as Detective Loki in PRISONERS, but their fruitful collaboration was actually a byproduct of their work together here. Gyllenhaal delivers dual performances, making arguably one of the biggest challenges an actor could face — acting against oneself — seem as easy and natural as could be.
As the college history professor Adam, he assumes a quiet & meek affectation; easily trod upon by anyone who cares enough to. His identical counterpart, Anthony, is the dark mirror image: a seeker of attention by way of a middling acting career, self-obsessed to the point of narcissicim, and possessed of a mild psychotic streak.
In certain respects, the mechanics of Gyllenhaal’s performance are more interesting than the characters he’s depicting, deftly moving between these opposing personas with little more than minor adjustments— for instance, switching his dominant hand depending on which character he’s currently inhabiting.
In several instances, he’s also effectively improvising with himself, deliberately going off-script in one take in a way that forces him to respond when he switches over.
A mixture of high and low-tech tools allow Gyllenhaal to pursue his ambitious strategy, whether it’s acting opposite a tennis ball on a stick (1) or moving in sync with a motion-controlled camera for the film’s trickier illusions.
While given nowhere near the amount of screen time afforded of Gyllenhaal, ENEMY’s trio of supporting female characters nevertheless provide compelling counterweights to his inwardly-collapsing paranoia. Mélanie Laurent, arguably best known to American audiences for her starring turn in Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009), plays Adam’s girlfriend Mary— a distant, cold, and disconnected blonde whose true feelings for him are hard to decipher.
Further deepening ENEMY’s obsession with doubles, Villeneuve casts Sarah Gadon as Anthony’s corresponding significant other, Helen, who is also a direct opposite of Mary. Hers is a platinum shade of blonde, maybe artificial… but there’s nothing fake about her warm, nurturing nature.
Somewhere in the second or third trimester of pregnancy, Helen stands in stark contrast to her counterpart; her strength is a quiet insightfulness that Anthony mistakes as weakness— and a license to walk all over her.
Isabella Rossellini makes a brief, yet memorable, appearance as Adam’s mother, further deepening the central mystery with her coldly pragmatic character who may or may not know what’s really going on with her son.
While his partnership with cinematographer Roger Deakins and the moody, Oscar-nominated photography of PRISONERS is generally regarded as Villeneuve’s point of entry into the digital realm, ENEMY uses his first true experience with the medium as a kind of quick test run.
Captured in 2K resolution on Arri Alexa cameras using Hawk V-Lite 1.3x anamorphic lenses, ENEMY makes an earnest effort to see just how far a digital sensor can be pushed in the pursuit of unforgettable imagery.
Working with cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, Villeneuve emphasizes the narrative’s singular obsession with duality by exaggerating the contrast between his image’s light and dark values. Shadows and highlights dance along the edge of exposure, with the 2.35:1 frame’s subjects frequently obscured as silhouettes.
Villeneuve and Bolduc, in tandem with careful palette selections by returning production designer Patrice Vermette, drain the image of almost all color, creating a monochromatic look that would approximate black & white if not for the sickly saffron hue that envelopes every exposed pixel.
Highly reminiscent of the intense air pollution that blankets China or India — or a penetrating poison gas — this deliberately-stylized look gives ENEMY a distinct character that further reinforces Villeneuve’s hazy, dreamlike atmosphere. Neither fully warm or fully cool, ENEMY’s amber coating suggests a suspended psychological state caught between the two color temperatures— integration with one’s environment versus alienation from it.
Villeneuve adopts a complementary approach to camera movement, creating the impression of floating detachment via the frequent use of Steadicam setups, butter-smooth dolly work and slow, creeping zooms.
Of course, no discussion of ENEMY’s visual hallmarks would be complete without mention of the spider motif Villeneuve employs throughout. Easily the source of the film’s most disturbing imagery — particularly, the stomach-churning, out-of-nowhere shock of its final moments — the presence of spiders bears no narrative relation to the plot, per se.
Instead, they serve a strictly-metaphorical purpose; they are decorative ornamentation affixed to the structure, infusing the proceedings with an allusive, nightmarish subtext.
Whether it’s the spiders incorporated into the performances at the underground sex club Anthony is seen attending, a dream-state vision of a nude, spider-headed woman walking down a hallway, a smashed window splintering into a cobweb pattern, or a skyscraper-sized long-leg arachnid perched against downtown Toronto, Villeneuve leverages the chilling iconography of the species at every turn.
This approach event extends to the music, composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans and arranged for what sounds to be a string quartet, creating a prickly, spindly sound that evokes the distinctly foreboding creep of eight legs.
One might naturally ask what the artistic purpose is behind the creation of such an unpleasant atmosphere as ENEMY’s. After all, why subject the audience to the ever-present terror of spiders if there’s no apparent reason for them? Those looking for easy answers are bound to be disappointed; Villeneuve’s collaborators are reportedly prohibited from talking about the significance of the film’s spiders (1).
Some have theorized that they represent Adam and Anthony’s weakness relative to their female counterparts, in that the females of the species are bigger and more dominant (1). Writing for Slate, Forrest Wickman presents one of the more intriguing theories, positioning ENEMY as a kind of parable for the insidious invisibility of totalitarian states.
He goes on to elaborate, suggesting spiderwebs as an appropriate metaphor for the tangle of sociopolitical movements that people can’t necessarily see until they’re already hopelessly ensnared within it (2).
In his observations that totalitarianism is a natural human tendency — a need to control one’s environment that comes from deep within, instead of external factors — Wickman arguably strikes the closest to Villeneuve’s supposed artistic intent. Villeneuve’s clearest comments towards this end convey his desire to plumb the mysterious depths of the subconscious; more specifically, he’s interested in our conscious attempts to avoid repeating the same mistakes, or to subvert our unconscious proclivities towards repetition (3).
“Sometimes you have compulsions that you can’t control coming from the subconscious”, Villeneuve explains, “they are the dictator inside ourselves” (2).
In this light, Villeneuve’s thematic signatures position him as the ideal filmmaker for the material; its place within his larger body of work made all the more evident.
This idea of an interior tyranny stemming from one’s own unconscious impulses, externalized as visual stimulus, feeds into Villeneuve’s talent for constructing foreboding cinematic environments. With ENEMY in particular, Villeneuve emphasizes Toronto’s brutalist architecture — anonymizing housing projects and institutional design “efficiencies” — to better reflect the individual’s alienation from contemporary urban life.
The narrative’s focus on two dueling male personas throws the female characters into sharper relief, with Helen in particular servicing Villeneuve’s artistic interest in the unique fortitudes of motherhood. An inherently quiet, passive person, Helen could easily be construed as weak or submissive; indeed, Anthony takes frequent advantage of this misconception to place himself front and center in their relationship.
That she’s woven directly into the film’s shock ending signifies just how integral she is to ENEMY’s narrative and thematic threads. Her seeming passiveness gives her a strategic observational advantage, allowing her to see right through Adam’s feeble attempts to pose as Anthony and seduce her while his twin is off on a romantic getaway with his assumedly oblivious girlfriend.
For her part, Mary is just as astute an observer, foiling Anthony’s deception by noticing an extremely tiny detail that, in his narcissism and hubris, he easily overlooks— the tan line left behind where his wedding ring ought to be. Helen knows the man in her bed pretending to be her husband is not who he says he is, but she sees a chance to assert her own needs and wants by using Anthony’s own deceits against him.
Adam’s conscience won’t let him follow through with his plan, so Helen takes charge and effectively does it for him. It may be a twisted sense of strength, but one could hardly call it weakness.
ENEMY premiered in the Special Presentation section of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, going on to a wider release in 2014 handled by the buzzy prestige-indie outfit, A24.
The film was received quite positively by critics, many of whom compared its surreal, dreamlike atmosphere to the work of David Lynch (unconsciously predicting Villeneuve’s future take on DUNE, which Lynch adapted his own version of in 1984).
While it made a relatively modest blip on the radar of American audiences, it made quite a splash on the Canadian awards circuit where Villeneuve was already a perennial presence, ultimately taking five Canadian Screen Awards including Best Motion Picture, Best Supporting Actress (for Gadon’s performance) and Best Director.
While his ascent into the American studio “Big Leagues” was already well underway, ENEMY’s Canadian awards success would serve as a sublime book-end to early successes like MAELSTROM and POLYTECHINQUE— and a fitting farewell to the film industry of his homeland.
The drug trade figures prominently in contemporary action films for the same reason that war does. The violent, aggressive nature of the arena lends itself to inherently dramatic situations and pulse pounding developments. This multi-billion dollar shadow industry is an unfathomably complex and predatory machine, often reduced to simplistic good-vs-evil morality for the sake of narrative brevity and visceral entertainment.
The DVD bargain bin at Wal-Mart is chock-full of brainless guns-and-glory genre films; thoughtful, meditative films like Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000) are exceedingly rare. Then there are works like director Denis Villeneuve’s SICARIO (2015)— expertly-crafted descents into the bowels of a hell of our own making.
Conceived at the height of Ciudad Juarez’s devastating war against the cartels, SICARIO (the Spanish word for “hitman”) shines a harsh UV light on America’s culpability in the conflict and our subsequent corrosion. The screenplay was written by actor/scribe Taylor Sheridan, who has quickly carved out a reputation for himself as an Aaron Sorkin-type wordsmith in the neo-western genre.
Villeneuve instantly responded to Sheridan’s bleak vision of savagery and bureaucratic corruption, his subsequent involvement elevating the project with his own ascendant momentum. The combination of Sheridan’s terse prose and Villeneuve’s imaginative eye results in a propulsive and devastating final product that digs deep to excavate what little humanity there is to find in such a brutal, inhospitable environment.
Shot in the bone-dry deserts outside Albuquerque, New Mexico on a budget of $30 million (3), SICARIO pits a small, elite team of American drug enforcement agents against the snake pit that is the Sonora Cartel.
The action takes place mostly in Arizona, but the story is primarily concerned with the thin strip of land that forms the border between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, TX— the only thing separating the idyllic tidiness of suburban American from a sprawling war zone.
Emily Blunt headlines SICARIO as Kate Macer, an ambitious, hardened FBI agent and the closest thing the film has to a moral center. Blunt delivers a powerhouse performance as a driven individual in constant conflict with her inherent womanhood in a profession defined by aggressive masculine posturing.
Macer stands as a compelling window through which to view this shadowy underworld, a beacon of integrity whose relative inexperience in the field has yet to corrode her idealism.
She compensates for her physical vulnerability with an emotional fortitude, trimming herself of life’s excess fat in pursuit of an almost-monastic devotion to her work.
Her big mistake, of course, is in thinking she’s successfully steeled herself against the ugliness of her world when the fact is she’s wholly unprepared for the evils that await her across the border.
Brought onto a clandestine Department of Defense operation as a kind of observer/consultant after a grisly (and explosive) discovery at a suburban drug den, Macer’s journey through SICARIO is one of world-shattering disillusionment and of literal nausea— Blunt reportedly contracted such a severe case of food poisoning during the Mexico portion of the shoot that she needed a constant IV drip just to get through the day (1).
Macer’s — and by extension, our — escorts through this veritable hell on earth prove no more reliable than the cartel, possessed of a cynical “whatever-it-takes” philosophy towards their work. They act with men with nothing to lose, because they are. Their souls were lost long ago to this bitter conflict, seemingly as old as time itself.
Though he is identified as Colombian in nationality, Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro is a man without a country. He may as well be a man without a name or a face, such is his embodiment of the intelligence-world slang term “spook”. Alejandro is as mysterious as he is polished; a deadly assassin with a monastic discipline equal to Macer’s own yet profoundly haunted by a past trauma that SICARIO slowly reveals to its captive audience.
His focus is always forward; his compass pointed due north towards the people responsible for an all-consuming loss. Yet, despite his coldness, he is possessed of a flicker of warmth that manifests itself in an arms-length protectiveness towards Macer. The opposite can be said of Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a seemingly-warm and friendly man concealing an icy interior.
A relic of the George W. Bush era, (and in all likelihood, a secret CIA agent) DOD Advisor Graver is a cavalier cowboy in flip flops. He relishes in the brutality of his work, suggesting underlying sociopathic inclinations even as he justifies his actions in the name of the greater good.
He’s emblematic of the moral decay sustained by both the war on drugs and the war on terror, witlessly contributing to the perpetual escalation of conflict in the belief that brute force and domination is enough to subdue an enemy who will cross any line to stay alive.
SICARIO’s supporting cast underscores the swirling vortex of danger surrounding Macer while also affording her a tether to her humanity. Victor Garber is authoritative yet caring as her boss, Dave Jennings. Daniel Kaluuya plays Reggie Wayne, her partner in the field and the closest thing she has to family. A veteran of Iraq, Reggie is compelled to look out for Macer’s well-being as if she were a sister.
Refreshingly, there’s no suggestion of a romantic charge between the two; this allows the story to better focus on Macer’s monastic devotion to her work and the growing conflict therein. Jon Bernthal has a minor role to play in the guise of Ted, a folksy Phoenix cop turned crooked by the cartels.
He’s a signifier of the cartel’s snaking influence within our borders, as well as a very immediate reminder that, as tough as Macer makes herself out to be, she’ll always be at a physical disadvantage against men.
Then there’s Maximilianio Hernandez as Silvio, a member of Mexico’s State Police. Seemingly unconnected to the main storyline, SICARIO gradually weaves Silvio’s arc into the fabric of the plot; he’s presented at first as an average cop and a somewhat-reluctant family man before heading off into the night in his police cruiser to his second job— as a drug mule for the cartels.
While his storyline terminates rather abruptly (indeed, the only conclusion offered here is the haunting absence his family feels in its wake), he’s an important plot device that demonstrates just how deeply the tentacles of the cartels have dug into the civic infrastructure of Mexico.
After their successful first collaboration with PRISONERS, Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins reunite to bring an effectively ominous flair to SICARIO’s Oscar-nominated look. One shot in particular — a deceptively-simple wide shot of American black ops soldiers marching down into the drug tunnels at sunset— effectively communicates the surgical, yet impressionistic approach that the filmmakers employ throughout.
A perfect summation of story, style, and theme, this moment silhouettes the troops against a thin flare of red-orange sunlight on the horizon as they descend underground, their black shapes dissolving into the black horizon line and effectively disappearing.
Beyond the shot’s literal narrative significance, it also speaks to the core themes that make SICARIO such an unsettlingly resonant experience: a descent into a hellish underworld, the loss of integrity and morality (signified by the silhouettes), and the idea of being swallowed up by a brutal machine much larger than any individual’s comprehension.
To achieve such a perfectly-calibrated shot as this (and many, many others), precision & control understandably becomes the name of the game, with the filmmakers utilizing the crispness of digital to complement their surgical approach to composition.
Shooting in 4K resolution on the Arri Alexa and a set of Zeiss Master Primes, Deakins and Villeneuve imbue the 2.39:1 frame with the hard light of the American southwest without losing fine detail in the process. Interiors often see the windows blown out, for instance, but atmospheric closeups reveal particles of dust floating past. Similarly, dramatic clouds are packed with subtle gradations of shadow.
SICARIO’s tightly-controlled color palette also evokes the burned-out harshness of the characters’ surroundings. Browns, blacks, greys, and various shades of tan & brown dominate the frame, accentuated by punches of red blood or the accented pop of royal blue (seen predominantly in the dress shirt Alejandro wears underneath his suit jacket, or the hard plastic chairs that populate institutional facilities).
Fluorescent lights tend to take on sickly saffron or steely blue hues, while incandescent lanterns glow with a warm amber color. The camerawork reinforces the filmmakers’ sensation of control, with propulsive tracking movements effectively locking the audience in for a relentless ride.
SICARIO’s core cinematographic strength, however, lies in its use of perspective. Each composition is informed by the perspective of said shot’s observer. This can be in a subjective sense, where we’re placed directly into the headspace of Macer or Alejandro, or via the comparatively-objective viewpoint of surveillance drones flying overhead.
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SICARIO frequently deploys drones to capture butter-smooth aerials of foreboding desert landscapes (and the hardscrabble patches of civilization within them). The effect is one of “omniscient malevolence”— an uncaring creator looking down in disappointment on his compromised creations (a common sensation in Villeneuve’s work).
At the same time, it also suggests mankind’s quest to conquer the elements, be it the clean, manicured lines of American suburbia or the sprawling chaos of Juarez slums. This idea is also manifest in the adoption of specialty night vision and thermal imaging cameras for the riveting tunnel sequence, allowing Macer and her cohorts to peer into the blackness and gain the tactical advantage.
Other key collaborators, like returning production designer Patrice Vermette and composer Jóhan Jóhannsonn, reinforce the looming danger of SICARIO’s cinematography. Vermette helps Deakins achieve the film’s tightly-controlled color palette while infusing each frame with a tactile grit.
Each scene no doubt posed an intimidating logistical challenge, but one of the production’s most complicated efforts was the building of a full-scale replica of the Juarez border crossing (1). Though it’s based on real-world architecture, the film amplifies an unintended byproduct of its design— its creation of a contained killing field that entraps Macer and her colleagues.
Their movements impeded by concrete walls and standstill traffic, each car potentially housing a small band of armed marauders, the situation easily becomes a standout set piece that effectively communicates the hidden, unrelenting danger at hand. Jóhannsson does the same (to an even greater degree) with his score.
Working from Villeneuve’s prompt that the score sound like a “a pulse from the desert” (2) — not so much musical in nature but more like an underground threat akin to John Williams’ plodding JAWS theme — Jóhansson crafts a throbbing, propulsive suite of cues that evoke the proverbial “belly of the beast”.
Droning cellos & horns convey a stomach-churning sense of malice, suggesting the drug trade as a labyrinthine machine designed for the express purpose of grinding humanity to a pulp.
At key junctures, Jóhannson deploys an ethereal soprano— a cautionary canary in the coal mine that cuts through the churning sonic machinery, reminding us of our protagonist’s physical fragility within it even as it suggests the possibility of escape. Indeed, Jóhansson’s score makes SICARIO a uniquely transcendent experience, albeit a deeply disquieting one.
It is, arguably, the capstone to the late composer’s relatively brief career.
Aside from its impeccable technical pedigree, this oft-mentioned atmosphere of foreboding and looming danger is perhaps the clearest sign of Villeneuve’s hand. Like POLYTECHNIQUE (2009), the characteristic oppressiveness of his aesthetic is conveyed through claustrophobic means, closing off our periphery via architectural motifs like tunnels and hallways while offering only one direction of movement: forward… towards the gaping maw of the beast.
The aforementioned Juarez border crossing sequence is an excellent example of this, though a more memorable one may be the breathtaking sequence in which Macer follows Graver’s team into an underground labyrinth of smuggling tunnels.
Villeneuve’s adherence to her subjective perspective throughout the film is a core part of this scene’s dread-filled resonance, collapsing our own sense of space and geography to her very narrow view (further complicated by bulky headgear and the lack of light).
The rattle of unseen gunfire echoes and bounces off the dirt walls, becoming an ominous portent of an immediate horror we must confront head-on. The entire sequence is designed to highlight Macer’s unique vulnerabilities within such an oppressively masculine environment even as it seeks to establish her strengths, succeeding in large part because of Villeneuve’s careerlong exploration of gender dynamics from feminine perspectives.
As a female operative in the male-dominated intelligence & counterterrorism field, her experience is one of constant alienation: physically, mentally, sexually, and politically. She’s devoted to the principles of righteousness that animate drug enforcement, not necessarily to the bureaucratic alphabet soup of organizations that constitute it.
Indeed, SICARIO positions Macer’s primary battle as one waged not against the cartels, but against the inhumanity of the CIA, the FBI, and the DOD— the very system that keeps this vicious beast fed.
Towards this end, SICARIO makes a compelling point that many other drug thrillers merely nod to (if they even acknowledge it at all): in adopting its hardline neo-con stance towards total eradication, the war on drugs has effectively turned our intelligence institutions into organized crime syndicates, and their operations into state-sponsored illegality.
If the pursuit of drug enforcement is ultimately a corrosive activity, as SICARIO suggests, then corruption becomes the only way to maintain order — or at least, the illusion of order.
A key narrative development finds Macer discovering that the entire purpose of her presence is a lie; she’s not there to observe and learn, as Graver initially informs her, but rather to stand as an unwitting pawn that gives Graver and his team the operational jurisdiction to pursue their aims across the border.
Instead of working together towards a common good, the various intelligence agencies are using each other to further their own ends. In effect, they are squabbling warlords, having descended into a kind of tribalism enabled by infinite operating budgets. This organized crime conceit becomes clear by film’s end, when Alejandro breaks into Macer’s apartment and forces her (at gunpoint) to sign papers that falsely testify to the legality of their operation.
It may not be the most visual sequence as far as climaxes go, but this development is arguably the most devastating thing that could happen to Macer. It’s a violation of her integrity — the source of her strength. Being forced to betray herself and her ideals is far more damaging than the physical assault she’s routinely threatened with in her line of work.
Bleak though this ending may be, it also offers a shred of optimism: Alejandro leaves her with a cryptic warning — “this is a land of wolves now” — and urges her to quit & move away. He’s effectively saying that she’s not cut out for this life, but what he means is that she’s too good for it. She still has time to save herself from the maw of this twisted machine; there’s still time to reclaim her humanity.
SICARIO would continue the rapid ascendancy of Villeneuve’s profile within the American film industry, grossing $84.9 million in worldwide box office receipts (4) and earning a swath of positive reviews from critics. It would also prove a strong presence within the festival circuit, premiering in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as being programmed in the Special Presentations section of the Toronto Film Festival (5).
Several Academy Award nominations would follow, with SICARIO honored for its cinematography, original score, and sound editing. A film as uncompromising as this tends not to escape controversy, however; the mayor of Juarez urged his people to boycott the film, criticizing its inaccurate representation of the city as unreflective of the significant progress he’d made in cleaning up the situation since 2010 (6).
Villeneuve claimed creative license, conceding that while the situation may no longer be completely accurate, the film had nonetheless been conceived at the height of Juarez’s deterioration (7) and was thus a comparatively faithful representation for the purposes of the story. SICARIO’s success would also spawn an unexpected franchise, with Sheridan ultimately positioning his script as the first in a trilogy of neo-westerns focused on the exploits of Alejandro and Graver.
The second of these, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) would see Brolin and Del Toro return… but not Villeneuve. Directed instead by Stefano Sollima, the sequel could not fully replicate the visceral sensation of the original, and subsequent chatter about a third installment seems to have petered out entirely.
Whether the sequel would have fared better had Villeneuve stayed on is open to debate— the role of director is only one small ingredient in the mysterious alchemy that constitutes a given project. Perhaps it’s better this way; SICARIO makes it overwhelmingly clear that Villeneuve had left it all on the field.
He had said everything there was for him to say on this subject, and to repeat it would not do him any favors beyond perhaps an upgrade to a bigger house.
Villeneuve’s immediate future lay not in franchise filmmaking (at least, not yet), but in leveraging his intimidating technical sophistication and weighty artistic voice towards the further exploration of humanity’s struggle against its greatest enemy: itself.
Alien invasions are a routine occurrence in the realm of cinema, as mundane an event as anything else on the day’s news cycle. Most compel us to look upwards in wonder, like Steven Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), or in horror, like WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). Very few, however, compel us to look inward— to reflect and marvel on the cosmic nature of our own composition.
If we’re made of starstuff, as Carl Sagan famously once said, we should celebrate that. We shouldn’t recoil at the unfathomable infinity of the larger universe and the other intelligences that may (and by all mathematical reasoning, should) inhabit it. Director Denis Villeneuve’s feature, ARRIVAL (2016), shares this sentiment— a somber celebration of our humanity as it stands on the precipice of profound change and becomes part of a larger cosmic tapestry of life.
Rivaled perhaps only by David Fincher in terms of the nihilistic quality he brings to his work, Villeneuve crafts ARRIVAL as a surprisingly hopeful and humanistic film. His vision of mankind’s first contact with an alien race is darkly beautiful and emotionally elegant, calibrated towards realism and scientific integrity.
The film is based on a short story by Ted Chiang titled “Story Of Your Life”, published in 1998 and subsequently adapted by screenwriter Eric Heisserer. After pitching his project around Hollywood to no interest for many years (4), Heisserer finally found a creative partner in director Shawn Levy’s production company 21 Laps (5).
Levy and fellow producers Dan Levine, Aaron Ryder, and David Linde brought the project to Villeneuve’s attention during the production of PRISONERS (6), steadily working to ready it for cameras while he was shooting other projects like SICARIO (2015).
By the time production commenced in Montreal, the producers found themselves with one of the hottest filmmakers in the world calling the shots— an artist working at the peak of his powers to steer their ambitious sci-fi project into uncharted territory: the awards circuit.
ARRIVAL begins not with a bang, but with a beep— the telltale chirp of a smartphone push notification alerting us to the latest developments in a never-ending cycle of breaking news. It has become a routine part of everyday life, only this is a day unlike any other in history… the day that everything will change.
A dozen or so egg-shaped orbs of unknown extraterrestrial origin have inexplicably materialized over seemingly-random locations throughout the globe, hovering silently about thirty feet above the surface.
While civilians take refuge in their homes and television screens, the governments of the world begin coordinating the intimidating — perhaps even impossible — task of establishing contact. The question is clear — “what is your purpose on earth?”— but the manner in which to actually communicate this query is a total mystery.
Enter Louise Banks, a linguistics expert and college professor who once worked as a Farsi translator for the military. As played by six-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams, Louise is top of her field, possessed of a supernatural gift for language and its varied styles and constructions across cultures.She is also haunted, we’re led to believe, by the tragic loss of a child— an explanation perhaps for her withdrawn, melancholic demeanor.
Shortly after the egg-shaped alien crafts materialize, she’s pulled away from the world of academia by the humorless, authoritative Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and brought to a hastily-erected site in Montana to assist his team in establishing contact with the heptapods: their term for the seven-legged extraterrestrials found inside the pods, which resemble an octopus and elephant mashed together.
Her partner in this mission is Jeremy Renner’s Ian Donnelly, a mild-mannered theoretical physicist who is uniquely suited to helping her make sense of the heptapod’s cryptic, nonlinear manner of communication.
While the larger question of their intentions for Earth invites a suffocating layer of dread over the operation, Banks faces more immediate (and unexpected) challenges from the human side of the equation; when she isn’t being bossed around by Col.
Weber, she’s fielding the impatience of MIchael Stuhlbarg’s Agent Halpern, the stuffed shirt running the communications center, or the aggressions of China’s General Shang, played by Tzi Ma as a reactive hardliner who is ultimately humbled by Banks’ efforts.
Indeed, ARRIVAL’s plot isn’t so much concerned with humanity’s dialogue with an alien race as it is with communication between members of our own kind; with our unique duality that tempers our intelligence and ambition with an inherent self-destructiveness.
A larger question looms over the proceedings; one that gives ARRIVAL its emotional center and allows it to transcend the plot’s genre trappings. In a way, it’s a question posed by the heptapods to Louise, slowly materializing as she learns the nonlinear structure of their language and begins to perceive the world around her — and time — differently.
We’re led to believe that Louise’s flashbacks to her lost child are just that: flashbacks. Without giving too much away, the film eventually reveals this to be an intentional misdirection. Just like Louise, we are assuming that the continuum of time is linear.
When the film pauses for these moments of melancholy reverie, we interpret Louise’s withdrawn expression as grief because we’ve been conditioned by the conventional storytelling purpose of the flashback device (as well as our own linear presumption of time).
In actuality, her expression is one of mystery and wonder — she doesn’t know who this child is. She doesn’t realize this child is yet to be born. Her ultimate realization as to the true nature of these “memories” puts her on the path to achieving her emotional needs with a compelling prompt: is love always worth pursuing, even if you knew it would end in heartbreak?
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That the film’s answer is a resounding “yes” is the key to understanding the beauty and luminance of our inherent humanity— even in the context of its revelation that our technological advances pale in comparison to those of the other intelligences that populate the stars.
ARRIVAL is committed to a realistic depiction of how the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence might play out on a global scale. Indeed, judging by the way various countries handled the coronavirus outbreak, the only unrealistic aspect is the speed and relative ease in which the governments of the world begin working together to establish contact.
The way in which Villeneuve stages the breaking news of their emergence is stomach-churning in its parallels to the first reports of a plane hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11. He emphasizes the mundane to begin with, foregoing the spectacle-favored eyewitness perspective for that of a teacher so wrapped up in the day’s work that she doesn’t notice all the people glued to a TV in the background.
Her classroom is much emptier than usual — the first sign that something is amiss — but she plods on with the lesson until cell phones begin to chirp with push notifications, each high-pitched “ping” adding to the growing atmosphere of dread.
The global fallout of the heptapods’ arrival also presents a compelling conundrum for the film to explore, arguing how the exceptionality of humanity — our passions & our ambitions — can weaponize itself against us in times of extreme strife.
Our individual interests are mistaken for our collective ones, subsequently causing us to rapidly divide into smaller, squabbling camps that make for easier targets for conquest by an outside intelligence.
ARRIVAL’s harrowing realism stems from an impeccable technical pedigree; a result of both Villeneuve’s artistic tastes as well as the intimidating skill sets of his collaborators. He enlists the services of Bradford Young, a particularly bright rising star in the cinematography trade sought after by A-list filmmakers for his unique ability to coax fine detail out of the lowest toes of exposure.
Digital Arri Alexa XST cameras were used to capture the film at 2K resolution in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the format’s proclivity toward cold, hard edges dampened by the use of a special set of Zeiss Ultra Prime lenses with recoated glass that reduces contrast (3).
Drawing inspiration from the stark monochromatic photography of Scandinavian artist Martin Hoagland (1), Young fulfills Villeneuve’s desire for an image rooted in a natural, evocative realism.
The film’s cinematography walks something of a tightrope in its embrace of a dim, drab aesthetic without feeling too gloomy or too dark. The lower contrast harmonizes with a shallow depth of field and a cold, desaturated color palette to establish a dreamlike aura.
When they’re not balancing the pop of orange hazmat suits against gray daylight, Villeneuve & Young lean into the harsh blue of the Montana facility’s utility lights or the warm ambers of incandescents.
The film further reinforces a sense of dreamlike memory by employing handheld camerawork to render Louise’s visions of her daughter, while Villeneuve’s formalistic inclinations — creeping dollies, foreboding aerials, and deliberate tracking movements — tether the bulk of the story to Earth.
Frequent production designer Patrice Vermette helps Villeneuve to transform the shooting site in Saint-Fabian, Quebec into the spacious vistas of Montana (1), while constructing a highly original and imaginative depiction of an intelligent alien race.
Nearly every aspect of the heptapods and their technology defies the well-trod iconography of aliens in pop culture; there’s no invisible tractor beam, no spinning saucers with a blinking array of blinding lights, and definitely no little green men.
Louise and her team have to enter the tall, egg-shaped craft via the humble scissor lift, only to find a small stone chamber where they can dialogue with the heptapods behind a kind of invisible barrier.
Vermette’s wife, the Montreal-based artist Martin Bertrand, was brought in to design the circular, inky nature of the heptapod’s “written” language, the versatility of which enabled Villeneuve and Heisserer to subsequently develop over one hundred distinct words and phrases— a fully-realized alien language that conveys meaning through imagery rather than script.
Returning editor Joe Walker draws a straight line from these logograms to the medium of cinema, which works in the same way. The film’s nonlinear succession of imagery and the obfuscation of chronology work to give the audience an emotional (if not technical) understanding of the story; none of us can relate to making contact with aliens, but we can relate to a mother’s love for her child as an experience that’s equally awe-inspiring and transcendent.
Walker infuses the connective tissue of ARRIVAL’s story with a natural, unforced poignancy, evidenced most immediately in scenes with Louise’s daughter— snippets of happy and painful memories coated with a veneer of melancholy via their pairing with the contemporary classical maestro Max Richter’s gorgeous string composition, “On The Nature of Daylight”.
Indeed, the cue is used throughout ARRIVAL to striking effect, illustrating the multitude of emotions that a single piece can convey by bookending the film, evoking feelings of heartache and grief at the opening while closing with the sensation of a delicate hope— not that the ultimate outcome of Louise’s motherhood might change, but that the journey ahead will make the whole thing worthwhile.
While its inclusion reinforces the trembling emotional tenor of the story, it would also impose a rather unwelcome side effect to the overall success of Villeneuve and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s final collaboration.
While the film’s score was highly regarded as some of the best work of his career, the heavy prominence of Richter’s pre-existing track would cause the Academy to bar Jóhannsson from Oscar consideration.
Because Richter’s track was also cinematic and orchestral in nature, they reasoned, they didn’t want voters to confuse that as Jóhannsson’s work either. In two short years, Jóhannsson would unexpectedly pass away; that the eligibility criteria would disqualify a major work from one of the medium’s most innovative and exciting composers seems, in retrospect, a significant bureaucratic blunder.
For what it’s worth, we still have a profoundly moving film that sails on the strength of its original score: a mixture of strings and low, ominous textures punctuated by a haunting vocal-adjacent synth element that sounds not unlike an alien singing to itself as it coasts through the stars.
ARRIVAL possesses dramatic and thematic elements that would easily attract any major filmmaker, and the imagination reels at the possibilities of how others might have interpreted Heisserer’s prose. As it stands, however, the film is uniquely suited to Villeneuve’s particular sensibilities.
It arguably appeals most immediately in its positioning as Louise as the central figure— a ready-made mold into which Villeneuve can inject his longtime artistic curiosity about feminine strength and matriarchal power.
She possesses an intimidating intellect and an almost supernatural grasp of the mechanics of language across a variety of cultures; this gives her an unparalleled authority at the Montana site, effectively diminishing that of her military supervisors.
For all their bluster and aggressiveness, they ultimately crumple when up against the wall that is Louise’s desire to execute her mission. Like Emily Blunt’s character in SICARIO, Louise seems to live a monastic, solitary life that revolves entirely around her job.
We’re initially led, of course, to believe her isolation is unintended; a byproduct of personal tragedy. Ultimately, her loneliness is not so much born of loss as it is a state of quiet anticipation… of waiting for her life to really begin.
She’s not a mother yet, but because ARRIVAL implies the dimension of time as circular or non-linear rather than an arrow, she has, in a way, always been a mother. Her entire life has been an unconscious effort to get to this point, arranging all the elements of her existence just so in anticipation of her maternal destiny.
This idea does not reduce her, however— it reinforces and amplifies the fullness of her individuality and humanity. Speaking as a relatively new parent, the act of raising a child doesn’t necessarily render one’s self to one-sided subservience.
Rather, it’s a bit like gaining the ability to see a new color that’s never existed before; the heart opens up to wield a love that might have previously seemed unimaginable, every day subsequently filling up with a constant marveling at the wonders of creation. Villeneuve clearly knows the feeling, allowing all of us to share in the sensation via Louise’s unconventional journey to motherhood.
For all its foreboding atmospherics and undercurrents of dread, ARRIVAL finds Villeneuve at his most optimistic— ready to embrace the promise and the potential of our humanity as something special in a universe otherwise peppered with intelligent life.
ARRIVAL marks Villeneuve’s largest success story to date— at least since he arrived stateside. After a prestigious premiere at the Venice Film Festival, the film would earn high marks from critics and $203 million in worldwide box office receipts.
It would end its awards season run with no less than eight Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Adapted Screenplay, and one win: Best Sound Editing. Perhaps more important than the victory of a gold statue, ARRIVAL would make long-overdue Oscar history with its nomination for cinematography, making Young the first African-American director of photography to receive the honor.
Villeneuve’s ascent to the forefront of the American film industry was now fortified, built atop a solid foundation of award-winning and uncompromising work. The road ahead would take him to the precarious land of franchise filmmaking, with all its lucrative potential as well as the high risk of subservience to the demands of bottom-line-minded conglomerates.
ARRIVAL, then, becomes a kind of last gasp of independent purity; the true end of an era. Villeneuve would perhaps be better suited than anyone to retain his artistic identity under these anonymizing conditions, but past performance is no guarantee of future success.
“BLADE RUNNER 2049” (2017)
“Los Angeles, November 2019”
When these words appeared at the start of Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER in 1982, the cyberpunk dystopia that followed could not have seemed more alien to an audience that had just escaped the disco era by the skin of its teeth.
Set forty years into the future, its neon-choked, acid-rain-soaked vision of a labyrinthine cityscape populated by flying cars, giant video billboards and bio-engineered humanoids was a breathtaking technological achievement that captured the imagination of a generation.
It’s amusing, then, to stand on the other side of the November 2019 dateline and compare Scott’s futuristic extrapolations to the LA that actually exists. Most of the city still looks as it did then, with maybe a handful of the densest pockets of Koreatown actually resembling the megalopolis that Scott envisioned.
Nevertheless, a myriad of think-pieces were inevitably published, detailing the various ways in which BLADE RUNNER’s 2019 has (and hasn’t) borne out against our own.
When it comes to BLADE RUNNER 2049, the long-awaited sequel directed by Denis Villeneuve and released in 2017, we didn’t have to wait several decades to pass before the world reflected its inhospitable future.
We only had to wait until September 9, 2020, when a series of devastating wildfires converged into a singular, gigantic smoke plume that blotted out the sun over San Francisco.
In a year that had already seen its fair share of apocalyptic threats from coronaviruses and murder hornets alike, this was a day that stood out as a particularly dreadful harbinger of our 21st century horizons.
Residents of the Bay Area woke up to thick, intensely orange skies (down in Los Angeles, meanwhile, our skies were a lighter but no less dread-inducing shade of saffron); comparisons were quickly drawn to an identical sight from BLADE RUNNER 2049, wherein the ruins of Las Vegas are barely visible through an impenetrable orange veil of ash and dust.
On this day — The Day That The Sun Didn’t Rise — the consequences of runaway climate change became frighteningly immediate.
The nightmare future of BLADE RUNNER was here.
Though BLADE RUNNER was not necessarily regarded as a success story upon its original release, the subsequent decades have only seen the property further entrench itself within pop culture. Whereas most sequels in our contemporary IP-obsessed era are not just greenlit before a first film is released but baked in to its narrative fabric like a foregone conclusion, the road to BLADE RUNNER 2049 was long & arduous… with no guarantee of a safe destination.
Talk of a sequel didn’t even begin until the early 1990’s, when the release of Scott’s Director’s Cut prompted BLADE RUNNER’s critical reappraisal from an ambitious dud to a major touchstone of the genre. Licensing issues quickly killed any momentum, grounding any serious talk of a sequel until the 2010’s (1).
This is when Alcon Entertainment, via producers Andrew A. Kosove and Broderick Johnson, purchased the property from its owner, Bud Yorkin, producer of the original film. In their efforts to realize a new story, they turned to Scott and screenwriter Hampton Fancher— the original architects of BLADE RUNNER’s now-iconic dystopia.
For his part, Scott had long harbored an ambition to make a second film, and he dived into the project with an eager enthusiasm. He was in a peculiar phase of his career, in which an artist who by all rights should have been enjoying the easygoing charms of retirement was consumed with revisiting and expanding the great triumphs of his early career.
He had already been wading through a total reinvention of the ALIEN universe, having reconfigured a conventional prequel into 2012’s mythos-exploding PROMETHEUS. For several years, he worked on this new BLADE RUNNER with Fancher and co-screenwriter Michael Green, while simultaneously developing a follow-up to PROMETHEUS.
As fate would have it, the latter would force his ultimate departure from the director’s chair on the former; he rightly couldn’t shoot ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) at the same time as BLADE RUNNER 2049 (3). The best course of action, it seemed, would be to resign as director and stay on as executive producer, where he could still exert a huge degree of creative control— including the hiring of his replacement.
Enter: Villeneuve, still riding high off a string of high-profile successes following his transition from Canadian arthouse cinema to American studio pictures. Easily one of the most sought-after filmmakers in the industry, he already had several personal connections to the project.
Beyond his deep affection and reverence for the BLADE RUNNER property, he also had fostered a fruitful working relationship with Kosove and Broderick on PRISONERS (2013, their previous collaboration at Alcon. With Villeneuve attached, it must have seemed like a can’t-lose proposition to all involved… except, maybe, to Villeneuve himself.
The filmmaker was arguably too reverent, feeling a great intimidation at taking on such a gigantic property; soaked through with a fear that his inaugural foray into big-budget franchise film making would do irreparable damage to the original film’s legacy. Rather than let himself be paralyzed with doubt, he embraced his trepidation as an opportunity to really examine the underlying thematic conceits that made BLADE RUNNER so resonant.
The final result would be an intellectual powerhouse of a sequel, possessed of a nature both soulful and cerebral. Though it may not have received the kind of reception the filmmakers anticipated, BLADE RUNNER 2049 would nonetheless prove itself as a more than worthy successor to Scott’s original vision while mapping out several intriguing pathways for future installments.
Though BLADE RUNNER 2049 takes place thirty years from now, its story begins just a few days prior to this writing— June 10, 2021. This is the day that a child was born of a replicant, a biologically engineered humanoid created to serve at the pleasure of mankind.
Though replicants are imbued with a variety of special abilities pertinent to their respective purposes, there is one thing they cannot do: procreate. This child, born to a replicant refugee named Rachael and Rick Deckard, a hard-boiled replicant hunter turned rogue, should not physically exist; that it does poses a monumental question that threatens to destroy the fragile peace between mankind and its creations.
Naturally, the identity of the child was hidden away — as was the child itself — for fear that news of its existence would, as one character puts it, “break the world”. Twenty-eight years later, the child’s existence is finally discovered by K, a replicant tasked by the LAPD with hunting and dispatching his own kind.
In his first performance headlining a major studio franchise, Ryan Gosling proves inspired casting as K, channeling his understated, fragile physicality into a convincingly emotionless persona.
This persona, however, is only a facade, concealing a roiling mix of unexpected and overwhelming emotions that begin when he dispatches Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), a replicant living in exile as a humble protein farmer. In the course of wrapping up the operation, he discovers the skeletal remains of Rachael, buried deep underneath a solitary dead tree on the property.
When he brings the bones back to LAPD headquarters for further analysis, he and his tough-skinned superior Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) are able to conclude that this female mystery replicant had done something impossible: she had given birth.
K subsequently embarks on a sprawling investigation that takes him from the brutalistic monoliths of Los Angeles, to the garbage-strewn wasteland of San Diego, and finally to the ash-choked ruins of Las Vegas. All the while, a steady accumulation of clues conspire to incept him with a forbidden idea: that the mystery child is none other than himself.
The truth, however, is not so black and white, and what initially presents itself as the latest embodiment of the well-worn “chosen one” trope splinters into a complex web of surprising revelations and elusive truths that can only be unspun by one man: Rick Deckard, the original Blade Runner.
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Reprising the last of his three iconic 80’s characters (the other two being Han Solo and Indiana Jones, of course), Harrison Ford doesn’t have to stretch much in portraying a grizzled, grumpy recluse haunted by loss and regret. He’s essentially been playing a variation on the same character for years, and though his costume consists of some trousers and an old t-shirt he may well have had already laying around the house, his exhibition of Deckard’s evolution is surprisingly nuanced.
While the original BLADE RUNNER consumed itself with the question of whether or not Deckard himself was a replicant, this iteration of the character simply doesn’t have the energy to care; he’s too preoccupied with concealing the identity of his child— a mission that comes at the expense of nuclear fatherhood or anything resembling a traditional family life.
Though BLADE RUNNER 2049 centers on an “awakening” as experienced by K, it’s emotional core lies in the vindication of Deckard’s sacrifice and his subsequent reunion with the child he never knew; the offspring of the only love he’s ever known.
The twin figureheads of K and Deckard anchor a compelling collection of supporting characters, each of whom further expands and deepen the rich BLADE RUNNER mythos. In addition to the aforementioned Wright and Bautista, BLADE RUNNER 2049 boasts the talents of performers like Jared Leto, Ana de Armas, Mackenzie Davis, and Sylvia Hoeks (among many, many others).
As Niander Wallace, Leto assumes the “deluded creator with a God complex” archetype previously filled by BLADE RUNNER’s Tyrell. Leto draws inspiration from several unnamed “friends in tech” for his performance as the young genius industrialist who saved humanity from starvation by inventing a new food source (and made billions for his trouble).
Shades of Elon Musk are present in Wallace’s unique megalomania, although his impact on the film is not so grand as his demeanor might suggest.
The character, reportedly intended for David Bowie before his death (1), is blind; reliant upon a floating swarm of bee-like drones that can see for him by delivering an image signal to a Bluetooth-like device that fits over his ear and ostensibly connects to an implant in his brain. True to his reputation as an intensely-devoted disciple of Method acting, Leto wore opaque lenses that actually blinded him (1), forcing a small band of assistants to shepherd him about the set throughout the entirety.
Unfortunately, this is about as compelling as the character of Niander Wallace gets, who is easily overshadowed by his female co-stars. His assistant – a dedicated replicant named Luv — is a far more immediate threat.
Despite her impeccable manner of dress and professional stoicism, Luv is a brutal fighting machine in her own right, made all the more compelling by a superior tactical intelligence that actress Sylvia Hoeks tempers with the stunted emotional IQ of a child.
There’s almost a kind of beautiful purity to the way she dispatches her opponents, almost always done in the most dispassionate, efficient manner possible. Ana de Armas evidences a gentler kind of loyalty as the ethereal Joi, an artificially intelligent hologram that serves as K’s only friend. She’s a fantasy; a constantly-glitching, sometimes-translucent projection of pixels in three dimensions, but in many ways, she is the film’s most humanistic presence.
Critics praised de Armas’ performance while decrying her character’s subservience to K, and to a degree, they make a fair point. Joi is, essentially, a highly-evolved Siri; a digital assistant and companion who provides beauty and warmth in a cold, brutal world.
Though the nature of her role is subservient to K, she is rather active in provoking his own emotional growth, exhibiting a burning curiosity about the world around her.
In her own way, she becomes an integral character in terms of opening up the scale of the BLADE RUNNER universe— by inviting a hardscrabble “pleasure model” replicant named Mariette (Mackenzie Davis) into K’s home in a bid to simulate a physical connection with him, she unwittingly introduces K to a wider network of rebel replicants who are secretly working in the shadows to bring freedom to their kind.
A few other familiar faces pop up throughout BLADE RUNNER 2049’s sprawling 164 minute runtime, both from the original film as well as Villeneuve’s repertory of collaborators.
Of the latter, David Dastmalchian — the unsettling child abductor from PRISONERS — appears in a small role as an LAPD forensics analyst named Coco.
Edward James Olmos reprises the role of Gaff, Deckard’s LAPD friend/rival from the first BLADE RUNNER, turning up in a single but consequential scene that sees the enigmatic maker of unicorn origami divulge a key piece of 2049’s puzzle. Finally, (and: major spoilers) Sean Young’s Rachael appears in a manifestation that’s become very common in contemporary sequel/reboots (coined as “legacyquels” by the writer and critic Matt Singer).
Deployed for a scene in which Wallace means to break Deckard down and reveal the identity of the child, Young’s Rachael strides in looking just as she did in 1982 (or 2019, if you’re going by the BLADE RUNNER timeline).
Whereas recent manifestations of this trend use CGI to de-age older actors (like Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s THE IRISHMAN) or resurrect the dead entirely (a la Peter Cushing “reprising” his famous role of Grand Moff Tarkin in Gareth Edward’s ROGUE ONE), BLADE RUNNER 2049’s is a rather fitting variation from a thematic standpoint.
That this iteration of Rachael — created by grafting a CGI performance onto an age-appropriate body double and a separate soundalike that were nonetheless counseled by Young herself — doesn’t pass muster as the real deal is the whole point. For all Wallace’s advances in replicant technology, his “resurrection” of Rachael resides firmly in the uncanny valley, causing Deckard (and us, by extension) to recoil at this cynical appeal to his nostalgia.
Though the film is set, naturally, in Los Angeles, production took place on sound stages and in carefully-chosen locales throughout Budapest. The production team benefited from the generous 25% tax rebate offered by the local government, as well as Scott’s familiarity with local crews and shooting infrastructure, altogether making for a relatively uneventful shoot that was a galaxy away from the notoriously troubled production of the original (4).
With the added advantage of computer-generated visual effects, BLADE RUNNER 2049 dramatically expands the scale of Scott’s cyberpunk LA, exhibiting a truly monolithic megalopolis whose city limits have metastasized to absorb San Diego into a district zoned entirely for the processing of its trash. A lot has happened in the thirty years since Deckard tangled with Roy Batty, including an oft-reference blackout that happened shortly afterwards.
Far more than a simple loss of power, this was The Blackout: a deliberate technological apocalypse engineered by renegade replicants, resulting in the detonation of an EMP detonated over LA and the total erasure of any information that wasn’t written down on paper.
As conceived by production designer Dennis Gassner, this iteration of LA retains much of its 1980’s-styled future aesthetic, right down to neon billboards with signage for Pan Am and Atari— real-world companies that have since gone extinct.
Despite the sleek towers of downtown, the city was already fairly decrepit in 2019, and 2049 shows just how far the cityscape has continued to decay. On the ground level, everything is broken down, dirty, corroded by decades of acid rain & snow, and sprinkled in layers of ash.
Gassner’s imaginative and meticulously-detailed work provides no shortage of dystopian eye candy for returning cinematographer Roger Deakins to train his camera on. Indeed Deakins’ Oscar-winning work here has the effect of towering over that of his celebrated colleagues (Villeneuve included)— no doubt a byproduct of his being given complete creative control over the film’s technical aspects by his director.
For example, he reportedly rejected the line producer’s request to shoot with nine cameras instead of one, foregoing the idea’s time-saving advantages because of his belief that multicam shoots result in “sloppy camerawork” (5).
BLADE RUNNER 2049 seems to possess a visceral weight that other effects-laden sci-fi films do not, likely because of Villeneuve and Deakins’ insistence on capturing as much of the film in-camera as possible.
As such, green screens were minimally employed, allowing for Deakins’ evocative, neon-infused lighting designs to truly inhabit the expansive sets and dramatically set-dressed locations that surrounded the actors.
To embrace the use of flimsy CGI set replacement would have been to rob the audience of some truly inspired lighting approaches, arguably best showcased in the set for Wallace’s monolithic ziggurat— a moody, seductive cocoon of ambient amber light and stark shapes punctuated by a shimmering effect on the walls that’s achieved by essentially blasting large lights through a water tank.
BLADE RUNNER 2049 was shot digitally, employing an Arri Alexa XT Studio camera that Deakins preferred to keep perpetually mounted on a crane arm so as to more quickly achieve Villeneuve’s stately, sweeping shot list (2).
Because the finished film would be available both in the conventional theatrical format as well as IMAX, the filmmakers toyed with the idea of using a large format camera like the Alexa 65, they ultimately preferred the “grainier” quality of the XT’s comparatively smaller sensor (6).
Faced with varying aspect ratios for their separate deliverables, Villeneuve and Deakins split the difference by shooting open gate— capturing an image with the full sensor while framing for the 2.40:1 theatrical master and the taller IMAX format (2).
A set of Zeiss Master Prime lenses give the image a premium sort of clarity that cuts through the heavy atmospherics of BLADE RUNNER’s heavily-corroded future.
Indeed, “atmospheric” is arguably the most succinct way that one could describe the film’s aesthetic, being comprised of enigmatic silhouettes, cold rain, bitter snow flurries, and the diffuse glow of neon that trades on a compelling blue/pink dichotomy.
Villeneuve and Deakins further expand on Scott’s iconic aesthetic with the subtle adoption of cool daylight-balanced fluorescents in spaces like LAPD headquarters and K’s box apartment, suggesting how a society might adapt to achieve necessary UV exposure/Vitamin D in a world where pollution blots out the sun.
Considering the significant cultural cache of Vangelis’ score for the original BLADE RUNNER, Villeneuve’s sequel faces a daunting challenge in having to balance an aesthetic adherence to what came before while fashioning something new.
His original choice for composer — frequent collaborator Johán Johánsson — fell too heavily on the side of the latter, forcing him and his producers to find a replacement that held truer to Vangelis’ established sound (1).
The idea of replicating somebody else’s work might seem beneath the stature of a highly regarded and in-demand composer like Hans Zimmer, but the iconic maestro always understands the assignment. Working together with Benjamin Wallfisch, he manages to strike the right balance between fealty to Vangelis’ original themes and a pulsing assertion of its own identity.
Throbbing percussion and eerie synth textures relentlessly propel K forward through the central mystery, amplifying our growing unease while evoking the inhospitality of the landscape. Ethereal piano clinks add a touch of the whimsical, offering up the possibility of wonder and vulnerability as K taps into an innate emotionality he had once thought to be impossible.
A key aspect of the score’s sonic identity is an aggressive “vrooming” texture that’s not unlike the revving of a motorcycle— a truly inspired contribution to the BLADE RUNNER aesthetic that was reportedly achieved by sampling a male choir and piping it through a series of electronic filters to approximate the desired mechanical quality (1).
Villeneuve further expands BLADE RUNNER’s musical character by slotting in a handful of needle drops unified by their mid century big-band sound; artists like Frank Sinatra and Elvis are used to salient effect in the Vegas sequences as sophisticated ghosts from a glamorous past, reinforcing the idea of this ash-choked future as a new kind of Dark Age.
Though Villeneuve is playing in a massive sandbox that he did not create, his core artistic signatures find themselves right at home in Scott’s dystopia.
His ability to conjure an overwhelmingly foreboding atmosphere is arguably his greatest asset in this regard, evidenced by numerous aerials that soar over devastated wastelands, endless fields of solar arrays, and towering structures whose architectural details are obscured and abstracted through varying degrees of air pollution.
He paints a vivid picture of a climate-ravaged future, complete with the extinction of all animals and the widespread adoption of masks among the populace— an image that takes on a particularly chilling air in light of the coronavirus pandemic that would soon send all of us (well, most of us) under their protective cover.
Also indicative of Villeneuve’s stamp is the increased prominence of women in this iteration of BLADE RUNNER. Previous films like POLYTECHNIQUE, INCENDIES and SICARIO explored the idea of asserting feminine strength in a brutalizing environment. This use of the word “strength” is something of a misnomer, and a contentious one at that.
Because the established convention for male protagonists is the achievement of self-actualization by direct, tangible action and the use of force, many filmmakers mistake the idea of a “strong” female protagonist as having similar qualities.
In short, they must be tough-as-nails badasses (just as Hoeks’ Luv is). This patronizing, reductive view might have its place in a certain subset of action cinema, but Villeneuve is far more interested in the feminine characteristics that serve as their own kind of strength; traits like compassion & emotional expression that require far more in the way of courage than pointing a gun at another man.
With Villeneuve’s filmography in particular, this kind of strength asserts itself through motherhood.
This is also true of BLADE RUNNER 2049, which contains a triumvirate of mother figures. Rachael’s importance to the plot (despite her absence) takes on a Madonna quality— and I’m not talking about the pop icon.
That a replicant who cannot procreate by design manages to somehow conceive a child draws heavy comparisons to the birth of Jesus Christ and the Christian dogma of the Immaculate Conception.
Rachael, then, becomes a new kind of Holy Mother for this 21st-century dystopia, ward to a sickly little girl who will one day grow up to become a messiah figure for her kind. As K’s superior, Wright’s Lt. Joshi also possesses a maternal quality in her balancing of stoic authority with genuine care for K; though she’s the farthest thing from a softie, she allows a disgraced K a generous head start to flee the city before sending her men after him.
The third maternal figure bears the least amount of weight on the plot (while clearly laying the foundation for the plot of a hypothetical third installment), appearing briefly as the eye-patched leader of the replicant resistance. She’s the one who divulges the cold, hard truth to K about his supposed origins, simultaneously shattering his newfound sense of hope while imbuing him with the resolve to keep fighting.
The characters of Joi & Mariette, by virtue of their romantic companionship with K, are emblematic of this dystopia’s rampant objectification of women— their existence as holographic software and a bioengineered life form, respectively, leads to a presumed absence of humanity by their male counterparts and their subsequent reduction into empty vessels of sexual gratification.
That Villeneuve makes a pronounced effort to exhibit their interior lives (Joi as a Pinocchio-type who just wants to be a real girl, and Mariette as a resolute activist working for the liberation of her people) makes for a strong counterargument to critics who decried BLADE RUNNER 2049’s supposed subjugation of the fairer sex.
Make no mistake: these characters are moving through an inhospitable world that exaggerates the misogyny of our own, but this is not a reflection of Villeneuve and company’s personal attitudes towards women.
Indeed, the narrative displays a wide spectrum of femininity that is nevertheless united by the strength that comes from inner resilience and the ceaseless hope that a better future lies ahead if they are willing to work toward it.
Just as BLADE RUNNER 2049 successfully captures the beat-down spirit of the original, so too does it replicate the bittersweet reception that unnecessarily prolonged the road to classic status.
Despite possessing all the conventional hallmarks of a hit — a buzzy director, an iconic movie star, splashy visuals, a generous marketing budget that ensured the poster’s presence pretty much everywhere, and a story rooted in a well-known property with a dedicated fan base, — the sequel failed to spark the box office like the producers might have hoped.
It wasn’t an abject failure, but $260 million in worldwide ticket sales doesn’t fully justify the approximately $185 million the film cost to make (7).
Armchair analysts jumped at the opportunity to argue over a supposed fatal flaw that did Villeneuve’s film in— Ryan Gosling wasn’t a big-enough star to open a picture; the BLADE RUNNER franchise wasn’t as beloved as the producers assumed; the film, at 2 hours 45 minutes, simply was far too long (if only they knew that editor Joe Walker’s earlier four-hour cut of the film prompted the filmmakers to strongly consider breaking it up into two separate films (1)).
Unlike Scott’s original film, however, critics were quick to realize and promote the brilliance of Villeneuve’s work. After appearing on several year-end lists as one of the top films of 2017, BLADE RUNNER 2049 would score several Oscar nominations in technical categories like Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, and Visual Effects.
It would also garner nods in higher-profile categories where sci-fi sequels are rarely recognized: Best Production Design and Best Cinematography.
The latter would serve to become, perhaps, BLADE RUNNER 2049’s ultimate triumph, finally awarding Deakins with his long-deserved and long-overdue gold statue. Only a few years into its post-theatrical life, BLADE RUNNER 2049’s own status as a modern classic seems assured as the rare sequel that can stand toe-to-toe with its original counterpart.
Though it may not have met financial expectations — and likely put any talk of a third installment to a swift end — Villeneuve’s career thankfully manages to avoid any tarnishing. Indeed, his profile has only grown, expanding beyond the arthouse and awards circles that made his name to capture the obsessive hearts of genre fanatics.
His upcoming remake of the storied sci-fi property DUNE is positioned to further reinforce his dominance in this arena, its own buzz having ballooned as one of the most-anticipated films of 2021 after the coronavirus pandemic delayed its release by a year.
In its broad sweep, the trajectory of Villeneuve’s filmmaking career is rather staggering— and inspirational. His gifts in visual storytelling were immediately apparent as far back as his 1994 short debut, REW FFW, and his uncompromising early features did nothing to slow his inevitable ascent… even with a nine-year hiatus thrown in the middle to focus on parenting.
We tend to marvel at “meteoric rise” narratives in the film industry, perhaps because it better reflects our own innate desires for instant gratification while catering to our proclivities to work as little as possible. Slow and steady marches like Villeneuve’s, unfolding over several years and decades, are not nearly as sexy, but they really do speak to the power of sustained focus and simple endurance.
The results speak for themselves, finding Villeneuve at the peak of his craft and empowered by his considerable experience as he ventures further into the biggest and highest-stakes phase of his career. The artist he has yet to become is anybody’s guess, but if BLADE RUNNER 2049 is any indication of what’s to come, then the future will be anything but dystopic.
Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos. His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To support Cameron’s work – Subscribe on Special.tv.
THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———