Despite having directed recent hits like Sicario and the critically acclaimed Prisoners starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, Denis Villeneuve’s name still may be unfamiliar to a lot of movie fans. That may change after this past weekend, when his Arrival earned an estimated $24 million in its debut weekend in U.S. theaters and, quite possibly, thrust itself into the middle of a wide-open Oscar race. The story of a linguist (Amy Adams) and mathematician (Jeremy Renner) tasked by the U.S. government with finding a way to communicate with aliens who’ve mysteriously arrived around the globe — and who don’t speak any human language — the sci-fi epic is both grandly suspenseful and disarmingly poignant. As such, it’s yet another example of the 49-year-old Canadian’s gift for marrying ominous mood and awe-inspiring widescreen sights with intimate character drama. Here’s a quick primer for the uninitiated before Villeneuve takes on his biggest assignment yet: 2017’s highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049.
August 32nd on Earth (1998)
After helming music videos and short films, Villeneuve made his feature debut with this indie about a woman (Pascale Bussierès) who survives a near-fatal car crash (after falling asleep at the wheel), and responds to that brush with death by quitting her job, asking her friend (Alexis Martin) to father her child, and then traveling with him to a desert area near Salt Lake City to procreate. Although his unusual plotting does lend the material an unreal, off-kilter, ominous quality, the uneven script doesn’t quite hold together. However, Villeneuve’s assured visual eye is already evident, especially in sequences set in the vast, arid, middle of American nowhere. Right from the start, Villeneuve clearly had formidable aesthetic sensibilities to display.
Virtually the epitome of an “art-house movie,” Villeneuve’s sophomore effort lurches between sincere character study and look-at-me stylistic affectation. Narrated by a dead fish on a butcher’s chopping block, it begins with an abortion set to the sound of “Good Morning, Starshine,” then proceeds to tell the tale of that woman’s (Marie Josée Croze) relationship with a man (Jean-Nicolas Verreault) whose fishmonger father she killed in a hit-and-run accident. The result is a moralistic fable whose heavy subject matter is handled with a jarringly light, jovial touch. If Villeneuve never quite gets his disparate tones to wholly gel, the film (which won five Canadian Genie awards, including Best Picture and Director) remains a visually eclectic and electric portrait of life’s interconnectedness, and of the ugly realities lurking beneath society’s sleek façades.
As with Maelström, Villeneuve’s third feature was feted in his native Canada, where it won nine Genie awards (including Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography). Recalling Gus Van Sant’s Columbine-inspired Elephant, it re-creates the Dec. 6, 1989, mass shooting at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, where gunman Marc Lépine killed 14 women and injured many more before taking his own life. The director doesn’t attempt to posit an answer to why this tragedy took place; rather, he merely situates viewers in the blood-stained spaces of that day, forcing viewers to ponder the fragility of life and the ever-present specter of death — all via stunning black-and-white cinematography that’s equal parts clinical and haunting.
Whereas his first three films remained on the mainstream’s periphery, this stunner deservedly brought him recognition on a far wider international scale. The story of two Canadian siblings who embark on a quest — demanded by their mother on her death bed — to deliver letters to the father they thought was dead, and a sibling they didn’t know existed, Villeneuve’s drama cross-cuts between their mission and their mother’s traumatic early years in unnervingly hypnotic ways. What emerges is a bracing consideration of the ways in which the past and the present exist in a state of constant, contentious dialogue. Culminating with bombshells that aren’t undone by some storytelling conveniences, it’s a heart-rending saga that rightfully earned its Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film.
Incendies catapulted Villeneuve to Hollywood, where he made an immediate splash with this harrowing thriller about a father (Hugh Jackman) whose child goes missing, and who increasingly comes to believe that a mentally challenged local (Paul Dano) is the kidnapper. That suspicion drives Jackman as grieving dad to abduct the man and torture him until he reveals the whereabouts of his daughter and her friend, whose father (Terrence Howard) becomes a reluctant accomplice in this scheme. Also featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as a cop assigned to the case, and Melissa Leo as the Dano character’s aunt, it’s a gripping whodunit that serves as an exploitation-movie examination of vengeance, truth, and evil’s pervasive presence, even in the most unassuming of places. It earned an Oscar nomination for cinematographer Roger Deakins, and firmly established Villeneuve as a master at oppressive, menacing atmosphere and imagery.
The second Villeneuve film in 2013 to star Jake Gyllenhaal was loosely adapted from a José Saramago novel, and is far more esoteric than Prisoners. In it, a college professor (Gyllenhaal) rents a movie and discovers that one of the actors is his mirror-image twin. He stalks this doppelganger, much to the chagrin of his girlfriend (Mélanie Laurent), who soon finds her beau changing in ways that are more than a bit strange. Eventually plummeting full-bore down the rabbit hole as personalities start blurring and overlapping, and questions without answers begin piling up, it’s a mesmerizing, head-spinning whatsit about identity. It benefits immensely from Villeneuve’s foreboding widescreen aesthetics — which encase the action in a haze of abstract terror — and a final image of unspeakable, unknowable monstrousness.
Re-teaming with his Prisoners cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve won critical acclaim for this nerve-rattling vision of America’s war on Mexican drug cartels as seen through the eyes of an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) recruited to join a shadowy task force led by Josh Brolin’s cagey superior and Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious assassin. If there’s a nagging problem with the film, it’s that, given her profession and background (and the personality her position would naturally demand), Blunt’s heroine proves far too shocked and dismayed over the revelations — about her superiors, and American policy — she eventually uncovers. Nonetheless, for pure audio-visual splendor, few recent big-screen releases have the imposing, unnerving style of Villeneuve’s border thriller, which employs both glaring sunlight and inky darkness to equally frightening effect.
And now, Villeneuve returns triumphantly to theaters with Arrival — a sci-fi effort preceding fall 2017’s Blade Runner 2049. Bolstered by a superb Amy Adams as a language expert assigned to figure out how to talk to aliens who communicate via confounding circular symbols, it’s an introspective sort of “first contact” blockbuster, one that — like so much of Villeneuve’s output — thrillingly marries tortured interior and grand exterior spaces. While its third-act surprises will likely receive a lot of attention, those bombshells are perfectly in tune with, and in service of, its overarching portrait of life’s circular nature, and the way written and spoken words link us to our past, present, and future. It is, in short, one of the year’s best films, and yet further proof that Villeneuve has ascended to Hollywood’s directorial upper echelons.