I often hear “He/She has never made a bad movie” used to compliment the best directors in the business, and it certainly applies to Sam Mendes, Christopher Nolan, and Paul Thomas Anderson, for example. Villeneuve, however, has never made a merely mediocre movie. He’s one of the newcomers to the U.S. movie-making scene—his first English language film was released in 2013—and in my opinion he has one of the brightest-looking futures, along with the likes of Damien Chazelle and Alex Garland. In addition to the quality of Villeneuve’s films, with the success of Arrival and with new Dune and Blade Runner adaptations on the way, he could become a box office powerhouse.
His meteoric rise is especially surprising to me because I hadn’t heard of him until 2013. I didn’t expect much from Prisoners, the first Villeneuve movie I saw. I flipped it on one night, and 2 ½ hours later I was floored by the craftsmanship he displayed, especially his ability to build tension. This proficiency to maintain suspense carries over to his other films, too—most notably in the ending of Enemy, the border-crossing scene in Sicario, and the alien shell entrance in Arrival. As with most movie moments of suspense, these scenes are simultaneously enthralling and unnerving. I also appreciate Villeneuve’s ability to sustain similar levels of suspense in different variations of the thriller genre—horror in Enemy, drama in Prisoners, crime in Sicario, and sci-fi in Arrival. The age-old film maxim is “Show; don’t tell,” and Villeneuve often maintains tension by taking this adage one step further, choosing instead to suggest rather than show. (If you’re interested in more specific analysis, check out this video and infographic that demonstrate the specific ways he builds tension in Sicario.)
In general, I place a high value on the aesthetics of films and the feelings I derive from them. Therefore, the directors I like most often work with cinematographers whose work I admire. For Prisoners and Sicario, my two favorite Villeneuve films, he worked with Roger Deakins, the legendary DP who often collaborates with the Coen brothers as well. (Similarly, Emmanuel Lubezki, the first cinematographer to win three consecutive Oscars, has worked with both Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro Iñárritu, two of my favorite directors.)
Lastly, I suppose I enjoy Villeneuve’s work because it has a philosophical underpinning with which I agree. As I expanded upon a few posts ago, facts and truth in the film world aren’t necessarily synonymous. Villeneuve would likely agree that this distinction exists, as he has said that “In contradiction and paradox, you can find truth.”1 His filmmaking ideology also aligns with that of David Fincher, perhaps my favorite director, in that Fincher likes to make films that scar, and Villeneuve thinks that “cinema is a tool to explore our shadows.”
1Quote from brainyquote.com