“The mathematics you’ve studied until now have sought to provide clear and definitive answers to clear and definitive problems. Now you are embarking on a new adventure. You will face insoluble problems that will lead to other, equally insoluble problems.”
Before his rise to fame in the decade that followed, Denis Villeneuve directed Incendies (“fires”), a fittingly incendiary mystery as Canadian twins search for their estranged father and brother to fulfill their mother’s last wish. Parallel stories intersperse their search with flashbacks to their mother’s eventful life. Although the country is unspecified, the events are drawn largely from the Lebanese Civil War, and the film is unflinching in tackling bleak subject matter that covers religious and sectarian violence, political imprisonment and torture. Villeneuve is sparing with what is shown on-screen, often content to show the aftermath instead. Incendies does not take sides, with Narwan’s experiences including Islamic honour killing and Christian terrorists shooting a bus filled with civilians (a striking image that serves to highlight Hollywood’s skewed portrayal of terrorism). The precise, cryptically constructed narrative ensures that attentive viewers are a step ahead of the characters, whilst still delivering a shattering conclusion. With the film shot on location in Montreal and Jordan, there is less of the strict visual control that emerged in Villeneuve’s later films, but we already see some familiar stylistic choices, such as lingering close-ups capturing actors’ reactions to extended dialogue spoken off-screen. Meanwhile, the use of multiple Radiohead songs is incongruously jarring, yet grounds the film’s unquestionably Western perspective on Middle Eastern local conflict.
“Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.”
Creating an epic space opera without “Star Wars” in the title is a financially risky proposition, and the chief criticism of Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is that it tells only half a story if its A-list cast fails to attract a wide enough audience for the second film to be made. I approach the film as a fan of the director rather than Frank Herbert’s novels but the script maintains the rich political intrigue between the familial houses laying claim to desert-planet Arrakis. The scenes of violence and war are always in service to that story. Timothée Chalamet is an excellent choice for Paul Atreides, making him seem vulnerable despite his lineage and skills. This is a man driven by dreams and visions, a storytelling device that I always find less compelling on screen than in writing, an indulgence detrimental to pacing. Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s own uncompromising vision is evident in almost every frame, from the ruggedly realistic clothing and stark geometric sets to the insect-inspired vehicle designs and a desaturated colour palette so tightly controlled that merely seeing green on Arrakis comes as a shock. Indeed the inhospitable world of Arrakis is utterly absorbing (even as the plot slows) in a way I have not felt since Avatar‘s Pandora, but the rest of the galaxy feels strangely empty — we may see large armies on different planets, but there is no sense that these are living, populated places. Dune is beautiful in its detailed grandeur which excels on the big screen but it can also be sluggish and bleak, held back from greatness by an ultimately unsatisfying ending, even if there are thematic justifications for where the line was drawn.
Denis Villeneuve may be my favourite currently working director off the back of his exceptional three-year run with the wildly different Sicario, Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. In his earlier Prisoners he explores the world of cerebral urban crime that David Fincher gravitates toward. Cinematic and storytelling tropes mean that crime thrillers typically underwhelm in their third act, either through the obviousness of their conclusion or a sense that they have cheated. Prisoners is a rare exception that carefully ties together the disparate clues scattered during its slow burn build up, but it succeeds moreso because of the wider themes it explores around desperation and retribution. Its subject matter makes for challenging viewing with child abduction, murder and torture (although the film is notably restrained in what it depicts on-screen). All of the lead performances are captivating, but Jackman’s emotional energy is the film’s seething undercurrent as a father who will do anything to find his daughter — yet, unlike the focused vengeance of Liam Neeson in Taken, here his actions are bred from desperation and the audience is forced to question rather than simply being brought along for the ride. Unashamedly an adult experience, Prisoners is exhausting but rewarding.