The disappearing puppet master:

Denis Villeneuve 

by Brendan Marx 


There is a subtle mastery to Denis Villeneuve’s visual storytelling, a nuanced orchestration of thought and emotion that surges within a viewer of his films, carrying them down into the recesses of the mind. Villeneuve’s genius resides there, within those profound spaces of thought, through which we often fear to amble. We might think of Villeneuve’s direction as the Virgil to the viewer’s Dante, leading us into the Hell of the mind.  What distinguishes Villeneuve from other directors is not necessarily content, but form and technique. Traversing the labyrinth of the mind, we find ourselves at the obscure core of human experience and, turning to ask our guide what it all means, we find that Villeneuve has abandoned us. We are left to find our own way out; to translate the chaos into order.

The idea of descent is pervasive throughout Villeneuve’s films and appears in numerous of the film’s final acts. In the climactic moments of Sicario (2015), Emily Blunt’s Kate Macy must navigate the tunnels of the American-Mexican border where she discovers the truth of Benicio Del Toro’s character Alejandro. This discovery forces her to confront and relinquish her own ideas of justice and order. Prisoners (2013) offers a similar reflection; Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover’s relentless search for his daughter concludes with his imprisonment in a dark hole, where all his hope is forfeit after he finds his daughter’s missing whistle and Keller is left asking god to protect his daughter. Enemy (2013), though lacking a physical descent, shows the complexity of a psychological fall. The audience remains quite uncertain as to the singularity of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Adam Bell and Anthony Claire. Are they the same person? If so, can they be thought of as the same person if he performs their identity differently? And again, the transition of Amy Adams’ Louise Banks from one language to another as she attempts to communicate with visiting aliens in Arrival (2016). Her deteriorating sanity, perhaps even madness, is the result of a reprogramming of thought and time, and Villeneuve questions our understanding and relation to both. What does it mean to think within a language that expresses itself over time? How does language structure experience? These, and numerous others, are the kinds of questions Villeneuve asks of his viewers.

What is interesting about Villeneuve’s direction is that he does not provide any explicit answers to the questions the films ask. He gestures to some semblance of possible answers and then absconds, disappears, leaving the questions to resonate with the audience. Perhaps the questions of identity in Enemy, of morality in Prisoners and Sicario, and of language and time in Arrival are too complex for answers; but this reveals something of Villeneuve’s much-admired technique. In a reversal of classical form, Villeneuve does not close the questions of his films. Though the film might have a cathartic ending, the questions remain in the thoughts of the viewers as reflections. Shifting the question from the subject of the film, to the illusive "I" – the viewer. Do I think the chaotic and illegal actions of Matt Graver’s (Josh Brolin) special joint task force is justified in Sicario? How do I perform my own identities? How does my use of language determine my existence in time? To what ends will I descend to protect my family and rescue my daughter? In Villeneuve’s films, the detached cinematic world spills into our worlds as questions about numerous aspects of social and existential ideas. Villeneuve uses film as a medium through which to challenge what people think they know and deconstruct the very premise of knowing. What better way to do this then in the game of information that is film direction?

Narrative driven cinematic storytelling operates around the exchange of information. The director selects a series of images and ideas to present to the viewer, who then distils the stimulus into a piece of information they will use to decipher the enigma that resides at the core of the narrative. Villeneuve is a master of playing with what the audience knows. The first montage of Louise Banks’ daughter in Arrival is a perfect example of how Villeneuve puppets the audience into thinking that her daughter precedes the arrival of the aliens. This brilliant use of the Kuleshov effect, the successive display of images in montage to create an idea, articulates how Villeneuve uses our conception of time’s linearity against us to expand on the films themes of time and language. Arrival’s form simulates its content; the redefining of time through the language of film. Villeneuve does something similar in Prisoners by placing visual and narrative traces as to the identity of the kidnapper and, if only for a moment, the audience is convinced of the kidnapper’s identity, of course, they are later proven incorrect. It is these reversals and plot-twists that hold Villeneuve’s philosophical framework together, a philosophy that seeks to challenge its viewers and deconstruct systems of thought by subverting our expectations.


So we descend deeper into the maze Villeneuve constructs for us, anxious about what monster we will confront in its centre. We are lead, as Dante is lead, deeper and deeper into the symbolic darkness of experience and thought, solving the riddles Villeneuve conceals in the architecture of the maze. Nearing the epicentre of the philosophical labyrinth Villeneuve creates, with film as its walls and guiding light, we turn the corner and find ourselves in an empty chamber. There is no monster to defeat, no great demon to duel. There is just you; alone. Villeneuve’s greatest antagonists are symbolic. After the films tangible antagonists are overcome, there looms behind them in the shadows the symbolic threat invulnerable to steel and bullets. And, there in that exposed space, Villeneuve lets go of the strings he used to puppet us to this chamber, crushing what we thought we knew against this symbolic antagonist. We realize then that we have forgotten how to walk.