As far as pronunciation, that’s the best I can do for you there. What I can do with a little more eloquence is tell you about this director and what his challenging and affecting films are all about.
I’ll go ahead and say now that while I’m going to be talking about several of Villeneuve’s movies dating back to 2013, I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. That being said, I have a feeling you’ll want to check his movies out for yourself after learning more about him and his work.
While Villeneuve has been making films in his native Canada since at least 2000, the first I ever heard of him was in 2013, when I headed to the theater to catch “Prisoners,” his first major American release. “Prisoners” is a gripping, brutal drama about a kidnapping that asks its main character — and the viewer — just how far you would go to protect your child. Hugh Jackman plays the dangerously unhinged father of the missing child and Jake Gyllenhaal plays the detective trying to keep the situation under some semblance of control.
What struck me immediately was Villeneuve’s masterful hand at generating tension. Obviously, in a film about an ordinary man driven off the rails to the point of becoming almost feral in his hunt for the truth about his missing and endangered child, you would expect there to be some tense moments, but the way Villeneuve handles some of the scenes in this film is some of the most visceral I’ve ever seen.
For me, and I’m sure many others, it became physically hard to watch at times, based on the downright inhumane treatment of some of the characters and the choices made by the father pushed to the limit of his own mental stability. This is all emphasized by the unsettling score crafted by Icelandic composer and frequent collaborator of Villeneuve, Jóhann Jóhannsson. This pair will team up for several of Villeneuve’s other projects and, in every case, Jóhannsson’s contribution adds an anxiety-inducing element to the parts which demand tension, and an unnatural, eerie calm to the parts that demand time for the viewer to process what they’re seeing.
The no-breathing, no-blinking combination of Jóhannsson’s music with Villeneuve’s distinct visual style displayed in the grimy “Prisoners” stuck with the movie-going public and also garnered some critical acclaim, netting an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography.
The next year, “Sicario” was released, in which a by-the-book FBI field agent is caught up in a shady mission in which the status quo is continually altered. “Sicario” delivers so much more than your run-of-the-mill action thriller, with a thought-provoking narrative and a focus on character motivations taking precedence over accumulating a high body count. It coaxes great performances out of the consistently excellent Emily Blunt, as well as from Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, the latter of which almost stealing the movie away from Blunt with his stoic and cryptic turn as a government operative with ties to various criminal organizations.
In every way a typical action movie that gets released nowadays fails, “Sicario” succeeds. Where the average action thriller might bombard the viewer with CGI explosions from start to finish, “Sicario” forgoes that trope for a more realistic and meaty commentary on the government’s moral code when going about foreign affairs, with Emily Blunt — and the viewer — becoming increasingly disgusted and disturbed as she uncovers the true meaning for her being invited onto the team.
The “action” climax in the middle of this movie is paced to with extreme care by Villeneuve, so much so that when the first bullet is (finally) fired, you’re on the verge of passing out from holding your breath so long. Again, Villeneuve takes what in the hands of a lesser mind could have been a generic, carbon copy amalgamation of things we’ve already seen and instead takes a sharp turn onto Creative Street — which for him is at the intersection of Fantastic Cinematography and Music Lane and Thought-Provoking and Poignant Drive.
We’ve arrived at three weeks ago.
After seeing some of Villeneuve’s work and studying up on his future projects, I was excited to see his unique take on one of my favorite genres in “Arrival,” a science fiction film starring the vastly underrated Amy Adams and oft-overlooked Jeremy Renner. This movie… is something else. I can count on one hand the times I’ve been subjected to pure, silent awe for several minutes after the credits begin rolling and “Arrival” is the most recent instance. What this film says and how it goes about saying it is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. (If you are at all inspired to see any of Villeneuve’s films after reading this: make it “Arrival.” You just gotta watch it.)
Villeneuve puts in a concerted effort to make the “realistic” parts feel real. When Adams’ and Renner’s characters are trying to get the government liaisons to understand their new ideas and developments, I felt like I was watching real scientists make their case to real military personnel. This is also helped by the grounded, textbook-based linguistic principles Adams’ character is attempting to teach the aliens in order to establish some form of two-way communication.
As a result of this dedication to believable realism, when the “science fiction,” alien aspects start snowballing toward terminal velocity and the story takes a turn for the fantastical, the movie earns the leap of faith it asks viewers to take. “Arrival” is the film I can say the least about without giving away its incredible secrets but, again, this is the absolute must-see of the bunch. And yes, I cried at the end.
The last film in Villeneuve’s American repertoire that I’ve yet to talk about is without a doubt his weirdest and most perplexing film of all. “Enemy” was released after “Prisoners” and before “Sicario,” but made next to no money at the box office and was all but lost in the shuffle, which probably has something to do with its cryptic imagery and the number of varying interpretations it has generated among its viewers.
This is another Jake Gyllenhaal collaboration in which Gyllenhaal plays a history professor who discovers there is someone out there who looks and sounds exactly like him. He attempts to hunt down his doppelganger and, as a result, has his reality called alarmingly into question.
From the very first sequence of the film, you are conditioned to expect something wildly different than what even the most straight-forward movies about someone having their reality called alarmingly into question have to offer… there may not be many of those, but you get the idea.
In the same year where Gyllenhaal starred as a greasy, exploitative “journalist” in “Nightcrawler,” he delivered an equally unnerving performance in “Enemy,” playing two versions of himself onscreen with each version having their own distinct but subtle nuances developed.
I watched “Enemy” all the way through and when the shockingly memorable last shot blacked out and the credits rolled, I thought I got it. It was a good movie!
It wasn’t until I stumbled upon a clip of Villeneuve talking about the “correct” interpretation of the story that I actually got it — and it hit me like a truck. I had the same feeling as I did during the last 20 minutes of “Arrival” when I realized I was seeing a different level of filmmaking than what I was used to. I immediately wanted to watch “Enemy” again and see if I could pick up clues about what I had just learned.
Denis Villeneuve’s films are made for people who demand more out of their movie-going experience than the run-of-the-mill… anything. You can expect a level of weighted tension and detailed, poignant storytelling and character-building that sadly is just far too uncommon these days.
Next on the horizon for Villeneuve is the reboot/sequel to 1982’s “Blade Runner,” and with someone as imaginative and meticulous as him being handed the keys to that world and those characters, I can’t wait to see how he enthralls me again.