Denis Villeneuve is not a filmmaker who sees the light at the end of the tunnel. If you’ve ever seen any one of his movies you’ll know that there is a sense of dread and uneasiness to every frame, the feeling that nothing good will happen and that everything is just wrong. Yet, the 47-year-old director hasn’t exactly tackled melancholic stories in his career either: His movies have included child abductors, terrorists, drug lords, hitmen, high school shooters and depressed alcoholics. Yet since his American debut, Prisoners, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman, he has steadily but surely built up a following that is making him a reputable force to be reckoned with. That film’s polite but good reviews were transformed over the last few years into an undeniable cult following. The grisly murder mystery at the center of the story has typical B-movie tropes, but he has a knack for making a script better just by the way he films, paces, and directs. About this he says, “All my life, I’ve searched for good screenwriters; I love writing, but I’m not a good screenwriter and I take forever to complete a script. For the first time ever, I’m receiving screenplays from Hollywood that actually intrigue me. I had heard so many horror stories about foreign filmmakers going to Hollywood that got fucked by the system. Martin Scorsese warned me in fact that ‘You need to remain intact, that’s the most important thing.’ ”
Prisoners was a big step forward in getting his name across. He admitted, “It was a film that was horribly American, almost a kind of western.” Villneuve followed it up with Enemy, a film he shot prior to Prisoners, also starring Gyllenhaal. About Enemy he stated, “That was a very personal film adapted from a Portuguese novel by José Saramago. When I read it I felt the same sensation as when I was a kid and saw 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was very much about masculine identity.” This will probably not be the last time he works with Gyllenhaal either. “We very much were a creative team with Enemy, Jake was very into the whole process. We we’re feeding off of each other – so much so that I find the film is almost a documentary on Jake’s subconscious.”
On a personal note, I lived through the Montreal film scene when Villeneuve, Jean-Marc Vallee, and an 18-year-old Xavier Dolan among others, revolutionized French-Canadian cinema, and in the process gave themselves a shot at the Hollywood studio system. It was a very exciting time, but it was always Villeneuve that I kept an especially close eye on. People who saw his movie Maelstrom back in 2000 knew this was a talent to watch. The film, narrated by a doomed fish, features a career-making performance by Marie-Jose Croze as a depressed, suicidal woman who gets romantically linked to the son of the man she killed in a hit and run accident. The style was grimly unique and had a surrealist aspect to it that was almost too frightening to watch. Or maybe it was just the images Villeneuve conjured up with his camera – he could find the most basic looking detail in a frame and accentuate its impact just by the way he positioned a camera or had the cinematographer light up the scene. “It’s strange, when I finished Maelstrom I told myself, no more movies with a female lead. My first three films had that. Yet with my following film, Polytechnique, I made a film about the female condition and Incendies, the Middle East female. It just seems like women inspire me and that’s a good thing.”
The Polytechnique school shooting in Quebec was still a big deal many years after it happened; it affected a generation and Villeneuve was one of those people. Shooting a film about the tragedy was a daunting task, and the film he made was not without controversy in Canada. During a class, a gunman shot 28 people, killing 14 women, before committing suicide. He began his attack by entering a classroom at the university, where he separated the male and female students. He told the women that he hated feminists, claiming that he was “fighting feminism” and calling the women “a bunch of feminists.” He shot all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women. ”Polytechnique is an organic film, a beast. The film is alive.” The film jumps back and forth in time, meditatively trying to find some peace with the tragedy. Villeneueve’s film tries to tackle the human cost of gender warfare and comes up with varying but troubling answers. Think Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, but French-Canadian. Shot in beautiful black and white by Pierre Gill, it’s an astonishing statement by a filmmaker who wants his voice to be heard. It justly won the Best Picture Genie award (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars), his second one after 2008’s Maelstrom triumph. The following year he triumphed again with Incendies, winning his third Best Picture Genie.
The fact that Villeneuve is becoming such a hot commodity is not surprising. Before he broke through in the States, he had made four highly impressive French-Canadian films. After each one I thought, “this might break through and get him known”, but it never happened. It’s a tough business, but the films got progressively better, and when his career finally reached its peak with Incendies, his trailblazing 2010 Oscar nominated masterpiece, audiences could no longer ignore the talent. “I didn’t have time to rest. The last day of shooting Polytechnique I directly went to day one of shooting Incendies. These were two projects that I really took to heart, but they mentally and physically drained me.” Political, angry, and thoroughly engrossing, Incendies is a Middle Eastern nightmare that gets progressively more disturbing as it goes along. Brother and sister lose mom, find out their dead father is very much alive, learn that they have a sibling they never knew existed and decide to go to a violent Middle Eastern country to find out more of their mother’s past. It’s pure Villeneueve: aggressive, violent, and thoroughly pessimistic about human nature. “The anger that was in the source material really, profoundly touched me,” he recounts.
This journey has brought Villenueve to – what is so far – his best American movie with Sicario, a movie he calls a “dark poem”. Villeneuve is slowly but very surely getting to a groove of studio filmmaking that will likely propel him to join the very best in Hollywood. If that isn’t already the case, it sure as hell will happen in the next few years. Sicario is a monster of a movie. Villeneuve stages the action like a true master, moving his camera to the beat of the violence. It’s with these action scenes that you realize just how talented the man is. They seem like very simple scenes to shoot, but they aren’t. It’s a good thing then that Sicario’s full-throttled sequences are refreshing, plentiful, and the highlights of the film, as they encompass a wide array of claustrophobic feelings and put you right in the thick of the action, especially in a highway shootout that is bound to become an iconic piece of cinema.
Dealing with the Mexican-American problems at the border and beyond, Sicario is highly relevant right now. It is nothing new that this year’s political campaigning has had Mexico very much at the forefront of the discussion. All the unusual talk of wall-building notwithstanding, there are core issues to be dealt with in the future. Talking to The Guardian at Cannes earlier this year, Villeneuve has said that “The movie is about America … how America fantasizes that it can solve problems beyond its borders, and about the collateral damage that results … and the legality and moral issues around that … It’s a movie that deals with idealism and realism and the tension between both … It takes place on the Mexican border, but it could have just as easily have been set in Afghanistan or the Middle East or various countries in Africa. In North America, we allow ourselves to do things that other countries can’t afford to.”
A lot of the film’s brilliance has to do with the cinematography that Roger Deakins brings to the table. This is Deakins’ second collaboration with Villeneuve – they make a great duo – and the film is almost as much a showcase for Villeneueve as it is for the famed cinematographer. Villeneuve seems to be giving carte blanche to Deakins with every movie, which isn’t a bad idea, and the two complement each other to great degrees. “I always profoundly felt Roger wanted to make the movie. One thing I adore about Roger is his discipline and his rigor. He exudes so much respect from the cast and crew. When I started editing the movie I was just floored by what he had done.
Sicario has been compared to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic for its investigation of the Mexican drug cartel and both starring Benicio Del Toro. That’s where comparisons should end, though. Relying heavily on atmosphere, a pulse pounding score from Jóhann Jóhannsson and a never better Emily Blunt, Villeneuve shoots the whole thing like a pro, giving us epic wide screen shots that take advantage of the breathtaking locations and his usual gloomy visual style. Its bow at Cannes came with a standing ovation and positive reviews, however it’s only now that the film is truly lifting off. Positive word of mouth – and there’s plenty of it for this movie – will propel this film into awards contention. Benicio Del Toro’s turn as the titular Sicario – a hitman by definition – is mysterious, mesmerizing and brutally brilliant.
Blunt also deserves to be part of the Best Actress conversation. She’s just one of the very best actresses around and her role as Kate Macer is an important one for Villeneuve as well. “There is obviously a lot of work to be done for women’s rights, there aren’t any good parts for women in movies these days … I think of this as my contribution.” Sicario had a bumpy road pre-production, as the movie’s backers wanted the Kate Macer role rewritten for a man. It was something his screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan, had been “advised” to do, but Villeneuve and Sheridan refused. “It isn’t easy to get a film made where the protagonist is a woman – there’s less money, people are afraid, and it’s really sad that it’s still like that today,” Villeneuve said. “It’s ludicrous, and this film shows that attitude is dépassé…” safe for Enemy and Prisoners, Villeneuve’s five other films have dealt with female identity. Much of this might have to do with his upbringing, which was dominated by two very prominent figures – his grandmothers – whom he calls “very powerful women.”
The movie feels epic in scope, but is actually very intimate in detail, which is a big part of why it works so well. Villeneuve never forgets that at the end of the day, it has to do with story and character. The fact that the 47-year-old director rarely gives interviews only enhances the intrigue of the man. I had the chance to meet him a couple of times in Montreal, and he gives off a shy but amicable feeling that is the polar opposite of his films. His passion for cinema is clearly felt, but so is the way he never fully reveals himself in conversation.
Hollywood has clearly been impressed by the man. Villeneuve has already wrapped up his next film, Story of Your Life, a science fiction film starring yet another female lead, Amy Adams. He’s also been given the outrageously important task of directing the sequel to Blade Runner, with a script by original helmer Ridley Scott, and Harrison Ford to star. “I don’t have the pretense to say I will do as Ridley Scott. I am totally different.” Of course Roger Deakins will be the cinematographer. Villeneuve has stated that his ”mind is more in America than Europe right now.” We hope it stays that way.