The Evolution of Denis Villeneuve

Denis Villeneuve is one of the most celebrated auteurs currently working in cinema.  His films cross all genres, almost always focusing on characters dealing with complex moral quandaries amid life altering situations, both on global and personal scales.  Emotional evolution and devastation are his preferred mediums, flittering between intimate independent forays and big budgeted mind benders that challenge his audiences to expect more from the Hollywood machine.  With the announcement that he will be helming a reboot of Frank Herbert's timeless classic Dune, many film lovers began to question what that would look like, given the financial struggles of Blade Runner 2049.  Villeneuve responded by acknowledging he'd made a big budget (masterpiece) art house film and that his Dune would be more akin to Star Wars for adults. 

In an effort to help realize what Villeneuve’s final vision will be, what follows is an examination of his filmography with a particular focus on his success, failures, and how he has evolved into one of the most formidable directors in modern cinema.  


Villeneuve's first films were independent ventures, screening at Cannes and other film festivals.  Maelstrom (a dark romantic odyssey), August 32nd on Earth (an existential love story), and Polytechnique (a recounting of a mass shooting) were all intimate films, featuring unique approaches to tried and true methods of storytelling.  Unfortunately, August 32nd and Maelstrom are difficult to track down.  Polytechnique is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.



Villeneuve's first breakthrough was his Oscar nominated film, Incendies.  A soul crushing mystery that examines complex themes of family, religious hatred, and violence.  The story involves two twins who are searching for a sibling they didn't know they had and their father who is presumed dead in the wake of their mother's death.  Simultaneously, their mother's story is told through flashbacks.   The importance of this film, outside of its harrowing subject matter is that it contains all of the potent talents Villeneuve has continued to refine.  He confidently directs his cast, drawing out memorable performances and takes his time with the narrative, leading the viewer to a shocking conclusion. 


Prisoners is one of Villeneuve's most divisive films.  Focusing on the kidnapping of two girls, the narrative explores the lengths to which parents will go to protect their children, the consequences of violence, and the ramifications of post-traumatic stress disorder.  Hugh Jackman gives one of his better performances as a father undone, however Jake Gyllenhaal steals the show as a detective with a troubled past.  Like Incendies, this is a tough film to watch, but Villeneuve's ability to direct his cast is essential here.  The flaw that divided some critics was the violence and almost monotonous story.  This can be attributed more to the marriage of Villeneuve's patient sensibilities and the A List, Hollywood experience.  It was the first sign of the greatness to come.  


Villeneuve's surreal psychological thriller Enemy is his most masterful work to date.  Divisive, intense, and unsettling, Enemy tells the story of a man who discovers he has a doppelganger...maybe.  Featuring one of the most unforgettable endings in the history of cinema and creepy, iconic imagery, Enemy is the first of Villeneuves' films where it feels like he steps beyond his oeuvre to produce a one of kind experience.  All of his touchstones are present, however unlike his previous films, Enemy exists in the realm of interpretation.  Symbolism abounds as giant arachnids weave webs over the imprisoned populace, Lynch-esque sex clubs exists in the bowels of buildings only the rich can access, and everyone is not what they seem.  While Enemy doesn't pack the emotional punch of his previous works, it is a one of a kind experience that confounds and terrifies.  


Apocalypse Now for post-cartel world, Sicario is a take no prisoners meditation on the futility of the drug war and the American government's complicity in the creation of its own demons.  Featuring some of the best camerawork of Roger Deakins' career and a trio of outstanding performances, Sicario is a disturbing deconstruction of the crime thriller.  Emily Blunt gives the performance of her career as a naive FBI agent who is drawn into a vicious underworld of shadowy government agents and sadistic drug dealers.  Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin support, with all three giving remarkable turns.  With respect to Villeneuve, this is yet another iteration of the enigmatic storyteller.  The emotional disturbance of his early films is present; however, it is combined with the dangerous mentality of Enemy to produce a toxic ambiance that drenches every scene. 


2016's Arrival is a remarkable endeavor.  Amy Adams stars in the performance of a lifetime as a scientist who begins communicate with extraterrestrial visitors.  A 47 million dollar thinking person's film, this was an extreme gamble by the studios that paid off.  Bradford Young's gorgeous cinematography combines with the late Johan Johannson’s exquisite score to create an almost ethereal feeling that penetrates the soul.  It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won one for best sound editing.  Villeneuve is at the top of his game with Arrival.  He continues to grow and the evidence lies both in the flawless presentation and the heartfelt finale, which is perhaps the greatest indicator of his growth as an artist.  In Arrival, the denouement is organic, a natural conclusion to the events that have transpired.  This is a film that doesn't aim to shock, confound, or repulse; it's goal is to celebrate the wonders of life and family and in such divided times, it is films such as this that are sorely needed. 

Blade Runner 2049 

The most high-profile film of his career thus far, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most important studio films ever made.  A box office "failure” the film energized critics and divided lifelong fans of the original.  Roger Deakins also returns to deliver another round of jaw dropping visuals.  More so than any of his other films, 2049 is pure spectacle.  Every composition, every note of Hans Zimmer's invasive score, and every twist in the mythological story is presented with the utmost care and respect.  Aside from the miracle of its existence, it is clear that Villeneuve is a true lover of film and a connoisseur of avant garde concepts.  He is a steward of imagination. 

It is clear that Villeneuve has grown as a filmmaker, however it is also important to note that he has retained the emotional focus that dominated his early works.  His films are slow walks through minefields of the soul, with each narrative patiently guiding the viewers through dangerous territories both physical and spiritual.  While violence is not the centerpiece of his portfolio, it is part of the foundation, with harrowing scenes of brutality dappled throughout.  Ultimately, his evolution as a thoughtful filmmaker, capable of injecting intelligent and disquieting subjects into mega budget studio pictures makes him the perfect fit for Dune.  Both David Lynch's classic interpretation and Syfy's epic miniseries share the inescapable truth that Dune is an emotional labyrinth, in which wondrous magics and deadly politics are the weapons of choice.  Denis Villeneuve's filmography shows he is the perfect director to wield these concepts.  

--Kyle Jonathan