Denis Villeneuve: Defining a Decade Using Shades of Grey

With our Best of the Decade March Madness in its championship round, I wanted to take a look one last look at the decade through the eyes of one of my favorite directors working today. This article was originally featured in 2020’s Blogathon, put on by Drew’s Movie Reviews. You can find the rest of the articles here.

(Spoilers ahead for Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival)

The 2010s are incredibly difficult to define when it comes to the films released in the decade. If you look at box office alone, it’s easily the best decade of all time with 8 of the top 10 grossing movies coming out in the last 10 years. If you expand that to the top 25, a whopping 22 of them came from this period of time. It was clearly the pinnacle of blockbuster filmmaking. We got 21 out of the 23 MCU movies, 5 Star Wars movies, a whole bunch of Disney “live-action” remakes, a resurgence of the Mission Impossible franchise, and a surprising number of great war films. Even if you just take the blockbusters, creating a Top 10 Movies of the Decade list was a daunting task. Add in the rest of the movies that came out, and it became nearly impossible.

I forced myself to really focus on the films that stuck with me in more ways than just pure entertainment. What I noticed was a lot of the films in contention were ones that posed a morally tough question to the audience and allowed us to decide who was in the right. While this genre is not new, there were quite a few of these films that came out this decade, possibly reflecting where we were in society. And in reviewing these films in contention that fell into this category, I noticed an interesting pattern. Denis Villeneuve directed three of them.

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Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival are easily three of my favorite movies not only of the decade, but ever. All three films place their protagonists in fascinating moral dilemmas and each allows the audience to decide for themselves if they make the right decisions. They are as thought provoking as they are entertaining. Each is expertly crafted, beautiful, and masterful pieces of art in their own way.

2013’s Prisoners features Hugh Jackman as a father who has every parent’s worst fear realized- his daughter is kidnapped in broad daylight in front of their home. Jake Gyllenhaal plays the lead detective on the case. Jackman, not content with the speed at which the police are investigating the case, takes matters into his own hands. He kidnaps the primary suspect and tortures him mercilessly to try and obtain the whereabouts of his daughter. This may seem like an extreme measure, and the movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that it is, but it’s also really hard to blame him. Most parents would probably do whatever it takes to save a child, if given the chance to do so. But I’m also able to see it from Gyllenhaal’s point of view. As a police officer or detective, it is your responsibility to make sure an investigation is thorough and within the confines of the law so that you can not only save this child, but also successfully prosecute the suspect to prevent it to happening to other children. Though it may be hard to blame Jackman’s character from acting in emotion, it’s also pretty clear he is in the wrong. I think even he understands that. But it’s also interesting to think about how you would react in the same situation.

Sicario is my second favorite film of the decade. It’s a beautiful yet disturbing look at the ugly world of drug cartels and the War on Drugs. As a police officer, I’m involved in that war every day. I see the results of drug addiction and the devastating effects it has on families and on the community at large. I like to think I’ve made a little bit of a difference but I also understand any drug seizure I can realistically make only actually affects a small number of people. The people that have the biggest effect are those on the frontline, like the DEA or FBI as depicted in Sicario. They are the ones, in addition to their counterparts in Mexico, that can actually fight the evil that is the Cartels.

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While I believe the fight against drugs is necessary, Sicario draws a clear line that most people would feel uncomfortable crossing. Emily Blunt stars as a young, somewhat naïve FBI agent named Kate who is also a stand-in of sorts for the audience. When she is called on a special task force to take the fight to a cartel, she is eager to do so. She is somewhat taken aback at the actual horrors of life in a Cartel controlled city, which I think initially lessens the blow of the extreme techniques fellow task force members, played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. However, as the movie plays out, the measures become more extreme, and true motives are revealed, Kate becomes more uncomfortable with the whole operation, as does the audience. This leads to a final confrontation between Del Toro’s hitman and the Cartel boss. Del Toro executes him, as well as his wife and children. This very clearly is crossing a line, but we also learn that Del Toro’s character’s wife was murdered at the hands of that same boss. This adds a lot of depth in a way that the audience might not agree at all with what he did, but many will be able to empathize with him, just as they did with Jackman’s character in Prisoners.

Each character is so layered that each member of the audience will draw their own line on the lengths the task force should have gone to. This is evident in one of the last scenes where Kate is forced to sign off on the operation, declaring it only used legal methods, by Del Toro at gun point, but can’t pull the trigger on him as he’s leaving. I think that she, like the audience, is questioning how much evil, if any, should be used to fight a greater evil, and therefore is struggling with where to draw the line herself.

Lastly, we get to 2016’s Arrival. This film sees Amy Adams as a linguist forced to try and learn an alien language in order to decode messages and figure out their intent. As the movie goes on, she begins to have dreams and visions about a life that doesn’t appear to be hers, in which her daughter dies at a young age due to an incurable illness. We eventually learn that knowing the alien language allows her to see time in a non-linear fashion and that those dream are actually her life in the future. With this new knowledge, Adams’ character decides to still get married and have the child, despite knowing her devastating fate. It’s fascinating to think about the concept and the morality of being able to see your future and change it in the past. Are the good experiences and memories you have with people worth it, even if it ends eventually? Would you change certain events in your past or future, knowing that those events have a strong impact on who you are as a person? Villeneuve makes you think about those options by presenting both sides of the argument in Adams’ and Jeremy Renner’s characters.

My first cinematic loves were Star Wars and Jurassic Park. We got several entries into each series this decade, with varying degrees of quality. I’ll always look forward to new installments of those series, as well as things like the MCU and DCEU. However, these three films from Denis Villeneuve and others like Ex Machina, Whiplash, and Hell or High Water defined a decade with their thought provoking shades of grey. I can’t wait to see if this trend continues as we move into the 2020s, or if something else takes its place.

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