In Arrival, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi mind-warper, you don’t see the alien spacecraft at first, not even after it has landed on our planet. Villeneuve makes you wait, for an unsettling amount of time, until our main character, linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams), is there in person. Only then is the spacecraft revealed to us in an image that conjures up equal parts dread and beauty.
Villeneuve usually drenches his films in pure dread from start to finish. You’d think this would make his work overly dour or unwatchable, but he somehow avoids that trap. How does he so successfully present his signature mood on screen? And how does he find the beauty despite it all? Let’s pull some examples from his four most recent pictures, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, and Arrival.
Since he doesn’t have a writing credit on any of his last four movies, the cinematography and shot composition is where you will find Villeneuve leaving his imprint the most. On each movie, every corner of the screen has been filled with evocative images of dread.
Of course, it presents itself a little differently for each film. In Prisoners, the child abduction thriller, it’s a suburban dread, one where a neighborhood of comfort and affluence is morphed into terror and torment. Interiors of suburban homes are depicted in mostly grays and blues; the weather is either cold, rainy, or both. The entire movie, although a bit too long, is infused with such a disturbing and uneasy mood that it’s impossible to relax.
For his drug war indictment Sicario, Villeneuve utilizes the harsh, dehydrated U.S.-Mexican border landscapes to convey dread of a savage world. We follow Emily Blunt’s out-of-place FBI agent into “a land of wolves.” One bravura shot of the agents preparing for a raid on a drug-smuggling tunnel into the United States is a perfect example of this dread. Against a dusk backdrop, the black shapes of the soldiers walk down toward the tunnel, almost as if they are descending into hell itself. Simultaneously, the droning, bass-heavy score perfectly soundtracks this bleak journey.
Arrival has us dreading the threat of the unknown through the gorgeous, yet unsettling shots of the exterior and interior of the alien spacecraft. Once inside this strange, coal-black oval, we again feel a mixture of awe and trepidation, due to absence of gravity and the minimalist aesthetic. We’re not sure if these beings come in peace or malevolence, but wow, is their spaceship breathtaking.
Jake Gyllenhaal is the only actor to star in more than one Villeneuve movie, which is perfect, because he’s best as a restless and anxious performer, going all the way back to Donnie Darko. In their psychosexual thriller, Enemy, Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal team up to create a masterfully tense and ambiguous ride. Gyllenhaal plays a professor who sees his doppelganger in a movie and won’t stop until he’s figured out what’s going on. As the detective investigating the missing children in Prisoners, he brings that character’s stress to screen through various tics and mannerisms. Both are performances of undeniable psychological complexity that display Gyllenhaal’s prodigious talent — and Villeneuve’s ability to bring it out of him.
Other big name actors also fare well in his films. Blunt and Benicio del Toro stand out in Sicario, the former just trying to keep her head above water in a chaotic and merciless drug world, while the latter unflinchingly and single-mindedly navigates the same landscape. When he says to her, “You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now,” you feel every bit of the danger and dread the scene lays out.
Perhaps the best performance in any Villeneuve film is Adams in Arrival. Most of the movie relies on her to singlehandedly emote what each specific scene requires. Put bluntly, this is her movie. She conveys intelligence, wonder, and pain with nimble grace throughout. She’s been nominated for five Oscars already, and I’m not sure she’s ever been better than she is here. Something about the uncertain world Villeneuve builds around her allows her to thrive as a poised and steady presence.
One of the things Villeneuve does better than most of his peers is pacing. His films move at a patient and measured clip; you always feel as if you are in good hands when you watch his work. You could do everything else right — acting, score, writing, visuals — but if your pacing is off, your film won’t have the desired effect.
Villeneuve is a master at gradually ramping up tension. His camera moves slowly and deliberately as he sets up his dread-filled sequences. You never feel like things are moving too fast, and you never feel like they’re moving too slow, because you’re hooked on what’s going to happen next. The border ambush scene from Sicario makes for an apt example.
There’s hardly a more precarious setting for a shootout than bumper-to-bumper traffic. Villeneuve uses this to his advantage by creating unbearable tension as the cars inch forward. He shows us the target vehicles and then takes us inside one of them, slowly panning around so we can see the guns. As the agents advance on them, your pulse quickens. After several harrowing seconds of a standoff, violence explodes from the screen in a flash of red and shattered windows. At this point the action has subsided, but as Blunt’s character surveys the scene, you catch an approaching figure in the car’s side mirror. Just like that, we are thrust back into danger.
The actual violence in that scene was mere seconds long, but everything around it was so masterfully handled that the burst of action had maximum impact.
In his piece on Villeneuve in The Ringer, Chris Ryan astutely outlines the lineage and method of directors like Villeneuve.
He is a worthy inheritor of a complicated legacy: part of a tradition that includes Ridley Scott (Villeneuve is making a sequel to Scott’s seminal Blade Runner) and David Fincher (and Stanley Kubrick, and the Coen brothers, and Cary Fukunaga, and Michael Bay) — directors who often take the mundane or grotesque parts of life, and create deeply pleasurable aesthetic experiences out of them. The more mundane or grotesque the better. They view it as a challenge: serial killers, child kidnappings, military engagements, panic rooms, border wars, psycho-sexual waking nightmares, Transformers, Facebook, Chinese restaurants, college dorm rooms, daylit Texas bars — it’s all a canvas. They are interested in the painting.
Villeneuve has proven to be a master at this. He makes dark, moody, often bleak movies that are also impossibly handsome. This makes his work pleasant in a sense, despite their setting and subject matter.
However, in Arrival we see him doing something a little different. Dread still very much fills the screen, but this time he lets some light in. Villeneuve himself said he wanted “a vacation from darkness,” and you can see this in the optimistic and life-affirming nature of Arrival. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that we’re used to alien invasion movies being highly apocalyptic. Arrival flips that on its head.
This newfound ray of light makes for an exciting next step in Villeneuve’s evolution as a filmmaker, especially with the highly anticipated Blade Runner 2049 on the way in 2017. He may be the Master of Dread, but he’s still refining his craft in a fascinating way.