Denis Villeneuve


(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )

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Denis Villeneuve

Un 32 Aout sur Terre (1998)

Maelstrom (2000)

Polytechnique (2009)

Incendies (2010)

The thriller Prisoners (2013), scripted by Aaron Gruzikowski and photographed by Roger Deakins, is, on the surface, more Agatha Christie (a simple "whodunit") than Alfred Hitchcock (yet another variant of the Psycho archetype). The plot is an impeccable puzzle. Behind the surface, however, it is also a morality play with two protagonists: an imperfect detective who is basically a social outcast and an atheist, but is also a real hero, and a God-fearing citizen with a stereotypical family and a impeccable social ca father-son deer-hunting tripredentials who, instead, is actually an amoral sadist. The latter is introduced from the beginning as a somewhat despicable human being (who teaches his son to kill innocent animals) and a paranoid millennial survivalist (he has stocked the basement in the event of a natural or man-made catastrophe). The real killer is a mere footnote, that only takes over towards the end (and the ending is one of the least interesting parts of the film). Human depravity disguised as high moral ground. Religion is everywhere and sometimes it feels like Villeneuve is mocking it. The film can be read as a religious allegory, or as a satire of religion. Whatever it is, it is shot with the austere tone of a theological study. The Freudian subconscious is also pervasive, although treated in a manner that is not very plausible.

Late autumn landscape. A father and a son, carpenter Keller and his teenage boy, are hunting in the woods. He teaches the kid how to kill an animal. Back home, in the casual suburban atmosphere of a safe quiet neighborhood, Keller and his wife Grace have a holiday dinner with two other couples. Their child Anna plays with Joy, the child of their friends Franklin and Nancy, an African-American couple. They are found climbing a camper parked in front of a vacant house down the road. We learn that Keller's basement is stocked with emergency food for any emergency. Then suddenly the couples realize that the two children have disappeared. A detective, who is celebrating the holiday alone in a diner, is alerted that children have been kidnapped. The police quickly tracks down the only suspect: the driver of the camper. He has parked it in a visible place, obviously not trying to hide. When the cops arrive, the camper tries to run away but an inept manouvre sends it crashing against a tree. The detective arrests the driver, Alex, who turns out to be mentally disabled. There are no clues in the camper and Alex is incapable of answering simple questions. Keller is angry at the detective for not being able to extort more information from Alex. Since Alex does not seem capable of a kidnap, the detective checks out other possibilities. He finds an old priest drunk and in the basement of the house he finds a rotting corpse with a maze medallion. The priest protests that the man had confessed in church to kidnapping 16 children and murdering most of them because he was "waging a war against God", and was planning to kill again. The police release Alex, who walks out escorted by his aunt Holly and surrounded by journalists. Keller, alerted by his wife, is there to confront the suspect. As Keller throws Alex to the floor, Alex whispers to him "They didn't cry until I left them" but no one else can hear him. It is Keller's word against Alex's denial. Could Alex be faking his mental state? Keller is more sure than ever that Alex is the kidnapper and decides to take justice into his hands. He gets in the car. He has a plan. The radio is broadcasting a preacher's sermon. Keller kidnaps Alex and takes him to an abandoned building outside town and begins to torture him. He shares the secret with the African-American father, Franklin, who is much less comfortable with torturing a human being. Keller insists that Alex should be treated like an animal for what he has done to their daughters. The aunt calls the detective, convinced that Alex has been kidnapped by the same kidnapper who took the children. She too lost her child, many years earlier. Keller keeps torturing Alex who doesn't say a word. The detective keeps interrogating the priest, another suspect, but the priest keeps repeating the same implausible story of the confession.
During a candlelight vigil for the girls the detective walks among the crowd and notices a strange man who flees him frantically. The following day Franklin hears on tv the story of this new suspect and begins to doubt Keller's theory. A clerk at a department store recognizes the sketch of the suspect and calls the detective. It turns out that the nameless suspect frequently buys kids' clothes in different sizes. The detective asks the clerk to phone him immediately should the suspect come back.
Franklin tells his wife what Keller has been doing to Alex. His wife demands to see Alex in the abandoned bulding and finds him in a pool of blood, disfigured beyond recognition. She cries and begs him, but she is talking to a piece of flesh who doesn't react anymore. Then suddenly Alex tries to escape but only to end up even more injured. Franklin and his wife are horrified by Keller's manic determination: he has now built a Nazi-style torture chamber. Keller does not listen to their doubts, calling them weak.
The suspect, whose face we don't see because he wears a hood, breaks into both houses. The second time, in the white folks' house, Keller's wife hears him, and he barely escapes through the bedroom window, but she has become neurotic and neither her teenage son nor the detective pay attention to her story. She shows the detective to the basement, and he sees how full of goods it is. What does intrigue the detective is that the husband, Keller, has been going out for days, officially searching for Anna. The following morning the detective waits patiently and follows Keller to the abandoned building, but Keller sees him and makes a scene. Keller continues to torture Alex. When Keller has doubts, he prays to God to find the strength to continue his sadistic torture. The detective is downstairs, having guessed where Keller spends his days. Keller lies down next to a bottle pretending to have slept drunk there so that his wife would not see him drink. When the detective is about to discover the hidden torture chamber, he receives a call from the store clerk who has just seen the suspect in the store, buying children's clothes as usual. The detective rushes to arrest the young man, Bob. Again, no traces of the missing children and no clues. It looks like the young man lives alone in a big house. The walls of the entire house are covered in diagrams of mazes. There's a room full of trunks that look like graves. The detective opens one and finds snakes inside. He keeps frantically opening trunks while the snakes escape and crawl around the house. One trunk contains a book full of diagrams of mazes. He also finds children's clothing drenched in blood. The parents identify the clothes as belonging to their daughters. Now Keller knows for a fact that he has been torturing an innocent. Keller starts crying and we don't know whether he is crying for his daughter or for what he himself has done to Alex.
Meanwhile the detective is watching Bob, obviously another mentally disabled man, drawing a maze for hours. The detective loses his temper, Bob manages to grab a gun and shoots himself in the mouth in front of him. If he is the kidnapper, he can no longer tell where the bodies of the children are.
Even knowing that Alex is innocent, Keller continues to torture him imprisoned in the dark torture chamber. Suddenly, Alex starts talking about a maze. On a hunch, Keller visits Alex's aunt. Keller learns that Alex was traumatized by an accident involving snakes. She says that her son died of cancer.
Another turn of events reopens the case: the forensic lab concludes that the blood on the children's clothes is pig's blood. It turns out that Bob was suffering of his own childhood trauma: he had been kidnapped himself as a child and was spending his life reenacting the crime, fascinated by real-world cases of child kidnappings. The detective cannot explain how he got hold of the children's clothes until he remembers Anna's mother reporting a break-in. All it takes is a few minutes under the bedroom's window to realize that she had told the truth: Bob stole Anna's clothes when he broke into the home.
Finally, out of the blue, Joy reappers, traumatized but alive, and is hospitalized. Keller and his wife rush to the hospital. Joy is under drugs and can barely move her head. We see flashes of the memories that crowd her mind. She only mumbles something that implies Keller she saw him where she was kept prisoner. The detective arrives just when Keller runs out of the hospital, jumps in his truck and starts driving away like a maniac. Keller, looking for Keller, heads for the abandoned building and hears Alex scream.
Keller, instead, has gone to Alex's house, suspecting that Joy saw him there when Keller came to talk to the aunt, in which case that's where Anna still is. The aunt lets him in but then points a gun at him. She forces him to handcuff himself and drink alcohol. As she escorts him to his truck, she rambles on that she and her husband had waged a war on God for taking their child's life, and that war consists in kidnapping other people's children. Two of those are Alex and Bob. Others were murdered. She makes him open a trap door in her backyard. There's a well-disguised pit underneath. She shoots him in the foot and pushes him down. She promises to dump his daughter's body there. She then drives Keller's truck away so that it can never be found.
Most likely, Alex knows where the children are, but didn't say it in order to protect an "aunt" whom he loves, she being the woman who raised him. At the same time Alex realized the pain of Anna's father and therefore whispered "They didn't cry until I left them" not to admit guilt but simply to reassure an anguished father about the conditions of his daughter.
Meanwhile, the detective has found Alex and now he heads for his house to notify his aunt. She is nowhere to be seen. The detective walks in and notices the photo of her husband that she had shown him the first time, but this time he pays attention to it: he was wearing the same maze medallion of the body found in the priest's basement, the same maze that Bob kept drawing over and over again. The detective connects the priest's story, Bob's living nightmare and the children's disappearance. In one of the rooms the evil aunt is injecting poison into Anna's arm who lies unconscious on the floor. She pulls the gun, he shoots her dead, she wounds him. Wounded, he drives at very high speed back to town to save Anna's life. When he hits town, he has to zigzag through heavy traffic to reach the hospital, while bleeding copiously from the head. He manages to get to the hospital in time. The detective himself is at the hospital, being treated for his wound.
The detective reads in the newspaper that Alex has been reunited with his biological parents, after 26 years. The newspaper also mentions that Keller is still missing. His wife thinks that Keller just left her. The police is actually digging in the backyard of the mad woman but work proceeds slowsly because the ground is now frozen after the winter storm. When the crew leaves, the detective wanders around alone. Down in the pit Keller has found his daughter's whistle and keeps blowing it. The detective, alone at the site, finally hears its faint sound...

Enemy (2013)

Sicario (2015) is an action movie that tries to deal with the moral ambiguity of moral forces that use amoral methods to against amoral forces.

Kate, divorced and childless, who has just witnessed extreme cruelty in a place where a mass murder has been committed, is chosen by an interagency team for a special mission to find a dangerous Mexican druglord under the leadership of an undercover CIA agent. From the beginning she realizes that rules will be bent. They cross the border and, after killing suspects in a car, they kidnap a Mexican citizen, bring him back to the USA and torture him to find out the hideout of his brother, the right-arm man of the druglord. A sinister former Mexican prosecutor, Alejandro, works with them. Kate is repeatedly told that she just has to watch and learn. She doesn't understand why she was picked for the mission. Alejandro clearly has a mission. A colleague sympathyzes with him for what happened to his family. They interrogate migrants and find the location of the tunnel used by the cartel. Kate is told that the plan is to force Manuel, the kingpin's right-arm man, to flee to Mexico, leading them to the druglord. The druglord is the man who terrorizes Mexican towns.
Kate mades friend with a redneck cop in a saloon but just before having sex with him she realizes that he is on the druglord's payroll. She fights him and he almost kills her before Alejandro arrives to arrest him. Tortured, the corrupt cop reveals the names of other corrupt cops.
The team learns that Manuel is going back to Mexico. They get ready for action. Kate finds out that she has just been used for procedural reasons, she was just an accessory to make the whole operation legal. Now she is not needed anymore, but she insists in continuing the mission. The team enters the tunnel and kills gangsters in Mexican territory. Kate tries to stop Alejandro from kidnapping a Mexican officer who works for the druglord, but he shoots her in the bulletproof vest and warns her never to point a gun at him again. She is informed that Alejandro is trying to help a cartel win the civil war for the purpose of restoring some peace in the region. In fact, he would work with just about anybody to accomplish his mission: find and kill the druglord, who killed his wife and his daughter. Alejandro forces the cop to stop Manuel's car. Manuel is surprised because all the cops respect him. Alejandro kills the cop and forces Manuel to drive him to the druglord's villa. Alejandro shoots his way into the majestic dining room where the man is having dinner with his wife and his two sons. Alejandro kills the entire family.
Later he visits Kate and asks her to sign a document certifying that the operations followed the rules. She initially refuses and he threatens to leave her unprotected in a town where she would probably be killed. She tries to stop him with a gun but then breaks down in tears. Boys are playing soccer, including the son of the cop killed by Alejandro. They stop briefly when they hear machine gun noise. Then they resume the game: someone else has just been killed.

Arrival (2016), based on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (2000) is a lightweight sci-fi movie sabotaged by old-fashioned (and a bit ridiculous) patriotic tones and Cold War psychosis (China and Russia are evil and the USA is the good one who saves the world). The plot is often implausible (she shows the aliens a sign "human" written in English and of course the scientists decipher the alien language in just a few days). The supposedly moral message has been used before in Peggy Sue Got Married: the protagonist accepts her future despite knowing how she will suffer. Villeneuve: Arrival (2016) A mother reminisces about playing with her little girl and interacting with her teenager while mourning her in amorgue. The day they arrived. She teaches laguages to an empty auditorium, mst students are missing. A student alerts her that something is happening outside. A UFO just landed, and many more are landing worldwide. She sees warplanes flashing through the sky. She lives alone in a beautiful house. State of emergency is declared by the government. Government agents show up to recruit her to translate the feeble sounds that the aliens made in response of English questions. She tells them that it's impossible to translate the sounds from the tape. That night a helicopter comes to pick her up. A fellow linguist, Ian, is already on board. The military wants to now: where did they come from? and how did they get to Earth? The helicopter drops them in a vast green meadow in the middle of which a giant egg towers. Six people are lifted into the egg, where gravity and air are different because the aliens clearly are trying to recreate the conditions of their earth. Dark tentacular beings advance towards them and stop behind a glass wall. Back into the military base, she listens to a lot of sounds made by the aliens. She shows them a sign "human". They respond with a visual language of smoke signs that emanate from their tentacles. She removes all protective layers to expose her gestures and facial expressions to the giant squids. Now the squids seem to understand what she is saying to them. As she is studying pictures of the smoke signals she remembers something that her child did. Meanwhile, the first pictures of the aliens go viral and cause riots. She is still haunted by memories of her daughter. A Chinese general is carrying out his own investigation. China mobilizes its army and Russia follows up. A message that both Louise and the Chinese decipher as "use weapons" causes extreme alarm around the world. Louise returns to speak to the aliens but the aliens produce a cloud of black ink over the glass wall and eject them. The reason is that some rogue soldiers decided to attack the spaceship. China declares war on the aliens and delivers an ultimatum to leave Chinese territory. Other countries are inclined to follow China's lead. Louise realizes that the aliens have given information to each of the 12 countries where they landed. She wants the countries to collaborate, but instead they are determined to keep their secrets from the others. The aliens lift Louise to the spaceship and have a more intimate conversation during which they explain that they help humanity because 3000 years later they will need humanity's help. The aliens tell Louise to use her weapon: she can see her future. She keeps seeing memories of her daughter, of when she told her of the unstoppable rare disease and that her father couldn't live with that notion and left them. (But now we start suspecting that she is seeing the future because that daughter has never been mentioned in her conversations and she told Ian that she is single). The military base is being evacuated because they fear retaliation from the spaceship for China's and Russia's attacks on the other alien spaceships. Suddenly Louise realizes that she can read the alien language easily, and she sees herself publishing a book on it and teaching about it at the university. Their gift is a "weapon" to see time the way they see it: time is not linear for them. The military are packing in a hurry but she has a vision of the future, 18 months later, a reception in which she meets Chinese general who thanks her for phoning him and averting the catastrophe. She runs back into the barracks and grabs the commander's phone to make that phone call. The general in the future whispers to her his wife's dying words, and she says them in the phone to the general. That is enough to stop the Chinese general from starting the war. By seeing the future, she has created it. Ian has risked his life to hold back the soldiers who wanted her to drop the phone. The spaceships dissolve in the clouds. She was actually seeing the future when she was seeing her daughter, and, knowing that it will end with the unstoppable disease and her daughter's death, she still embraced it: she married Ian and had the child with him.

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(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )