A PROPER INTRODUCTION
Oscar Week Profile: Denis Villeneuve & Jeff Nichols
“You think I’m crazy? Well, listen up, there’s a storm coming like nothing you’ve ever seen, and not a one of you is prepared for it.”
– Michael Shannon, Take Shelter.
Jeff Nichols has this melancholy inside of him. This reticent struggle that is seen through the eyes of his main character. Usually a loner. A broken man. But a real man. One that wants to live up to his duties. Take care of and protect those he loves. Nichols allows that with mindfulness and silence, encouraging his films gently in an intelligent and deliberate direction.
That particular scene from Take Shelter is full of pain and anger spewed out from a man who is under normal circumstances, restrained and kind. He just wants to do the right thing. And to hurl the truth at these sedentary humans. His neighbors. His friends. It’s brave and it’s excruciating to watch. But he also allows the subtleties to be just as powerful. A simple statement can break your heart. I realize that this is a testament to the gorgeous gift that Michael Shannon possesses. He is simply one of the most beautiful actors of my generation. Of our time really. Nichols knows this and utilizes it just like he did with Matthew McConaughey in Mud. He knows who can tell his stories. He coaxed a mediocre McConaughey out of remission and gave him a new start. Rust Cohle was born out of this chance. Ron Woodruff was born out of this chance. This belief that he was a great actor, not just a caricature of himself.
Even the side players are stunners. They compliment their protagonist. Shea Whigham who, like Shannon, is just beyond his own talent, is raw in Take Shelter. Joel Edgerton, whose rise to fame I predicted after I saw Animal Kingdom, is equally engaging and a perfect partner for Shannon in Midnight Special.
I haven’t seen Loving yet, perhaps because I’m still reeling from Midnight Special. It’s a shame that our disposable and short attention spans forget so quickly. That film was so important in its movement. In it’s message. In its beautiful devastation. Once again, Jeff Nichols uses the screen to allow silence and breathing. He uses small towns. He uses slow camera shots with intention. He uses the same people to support his film.
Denis Villeneuve, much like Nichols, is a quiet commander of his stories. With his most recent addition, Arrival, he has secured himself as an insightful and thoughtful visionary. Much like Nichols. Incendies may have garnered the attention of the critics, but I thought Prisoners was the best film of 2013 and it continues to haunt me. Like Nichols’ loyalty to Michael Shannon, I believe Villeneuve allowed Jake Gyllenhaal to mature as an actor. He gave him the opportunity to sink his teeth into the darkness. Search his soul for this transcendent character he created in Prisoners. Complete with tics and poor posture, tattoos and an irrevocable sadness in those large eyes of his. It is impressive to watch. Of course, it also gave Hugh Jackman all the room he needed to unleash the emotional depth that was necessary for the role. You saw the true nature of Jackman’s great talent and it is magnificent.
Gyllenhaal and Shannon became, in a way, muses for both of these directors. Even though Gyllenhaal’s was contained to two of Villeneuve’s films, it was still pivotal for him as a performer. Nichols moved on from Shannon to Edgerton as his leading man in Loving, but still includes him in the film. Villeneuve’s Sicario and Arrival eliminated any sort of actor
pattern but instead provided a stage for others to shine. Emily Blunt and Amy Adams delivered exquisite performances in Sicario and Arrival. Amy Adams reserved, grieving mother is only made more intriguing by her intellectual ingenuity. It’s such a subtle and captivating piece of acting. She continues to solidify her place in film as someone who cares about her craft with elegance and aptitude.
There are more similarities between Denis Villeneuve and Jeff Nichols. Perhaps it’s all conjecture but I feel that they have taken a page from David Fincher’s filmbook. They utilize their actors in a giving way. Either showcasing their range or taking chances on not as well known players. And it doesn’t stop there. Back in the older days of Hollywood, Howard Shore and John Williams were the household names as far as composing film scores were concerned. More recently, however, the idea of using smaller and independent musicians has become much more appealing, allowing an intimacy that is catered toward the story. When a filmmaker takes all of this into consideration, like building blocks, he will only continue to make great films. In 2011, Fincher introduced Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as the composers of The Social Network, and they took home an Oscar. Since then, Fincher has relied on Reznor and Ross to contribute their own unique sound to his vision. Jeff Nichols has David Wingo on all of his films and Denis Villeneuve has Johann Johansson. All three men share the same idea of not just a good soundtrack but an outstanding one. Sound is a major component in their films, almost a character if you will. Also, less is more. All three composers have a very minimal style but that’s not to say that their compositions aren’t exhilarating and moving. They all experiment with tones and sound to build a sonic wall at times so powerful by using a single rhythm, a descending tone or a repetitive theme. As stand alone soundtracks, they all bring me to tears. Minor chords are prevalent throughout all of their music. But even when there is promise in the sound, it has a spectre of heartbreak.
Historically, film lovers could identify their favorite directors by their style. The visuals and colors being key components. A film lover could easily pick out a Kubrick film in a lineup. David Fincher and Christopher Nolan have followed suit and have become powerful filmmakers in the same league as their idols and predecessors. But there are others like them. Denis Villeneuve and Jeff Nichols are strong contenders with their own tricks. Their unique identifiers. I find it fascinating how similar their themes are and how quietly they are executed. They both delve into the human condition and how society often echoes back what is being felt. They both are interested in the otherworldly. The curiosity that life exists somewhere else. Nichols carries an often apocalyptic theme with his films while Villeneuve, like Nolan, is fascinated by the maze of the human mind, time, space and the philosophical yearning for answers. The hushed grace bestowed upon these films is something that infuses originality in the otherwise bloated blockbuster machine that Hollywood has become. When art is empathetic, when it touches upon the elemental ideas of humanity, it will rise above the commonness with the promise of hope.