Denis Villenueve's brilliantly unnerving "Prisoners" is being sold primarily based on the star wattage of its cast, which includes Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, and Paul Dano, and its gripping, worst-fear-realized setup, involving the mysterious abduction of two young girls (read our review here). But "Prisoners" packs a secret weapon every bit as powerful as Wolverine looking for his missing daughter: the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. With "Prisoners," Deakins pushes his love of source lighting to wild extremes: a candlelight vigil turns into a field of starry bulbs, a captive's face is illuminated solely by the light that seeps in through a small hole, and ashy snowflakes are only visible due to headlights and the spinning lights of a police car. Deakins' work is deeply beautiful, moody stuff (some subtle camera moves also stand-out as best-of-year material too), intrinsic to the movie's oppressively moody atmosphere.
Deakins got his break filming documentaries in Africa, while working in the burgeoning field of music videos. In the '80s, he worked on movies like Michael Radford's adaptation of "1984" (released that same year), and "Sid and Nancy" for Alex Cox. In 1991 he would embark on his first film for the Coen Brothers, "Barton Fink." This would be the first film in a string of highly successful collaborations with the Coens; collaborations that would largely define his career. ("True Grit," in 2010, would be their 11th collaboration.) He's the kind of cinematographer that filmmakers clamor to work with; directors who have succeeded in wooing Deakins include Ron Howard, Edward Zwick, Norman Jewison, M. Night Shyamalan, Paul Haggis, John Sayles and David Mamet. Deakins also served as a visual consultant on Pixar's "WALL-E," before performing similar duties for animated films that include Gore Verbinski's "Rango," and Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois' "How to Train Your Dragon."
As a cinematographer, Deakins is something of a chameleon. He is unencumbered by a singular style; you know you're watching a movie Deakins has shot not because of one stylistic flourish, but because of a combination of things – the richness of the image, the amount of textures on display, the depth of field and the way that shadows threaten to sometimes swallow the image whole. The sensation you get while watching Deakins' work is that there are few, if any, who could capture these images the way that Deakins does.
So with "Prisoners" on the way, we thought it was good opportunity to look back on Deakins' work, and below we've selected five films that we think are among his greatest achievements.
"The Shawshank Redemption" (1994)
The initial response to Frank Darabont's "The Shawshank Redemption," both critically and commercially, was somewhat muted. In the years since, of course, it has become a fan favorite and regarded by some as the best movie ever, but at the time of its release, people hardly knew it existed (it barely recovered its production budget, and that was only after a theatrical re-release tied to its seven Oscar nominations, one of which was for Deakins). Still, even back then, people noticed Deakins' lush cinematography. In a B- review that called the film "Midnight Express Goes Gump," Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman still made time to single out Deakins' contributions, noting that "the moss-dark, saturated images have a redolent sensuality; you feel as if you could reach out and touch the prison walls." "The Shawshank Redemption" is partly an elaborate homage to the kind of prison movies Warner Bros. would produce in the '30s and '40s, so there's an element of nostalgia to Deakins' work here, with every bleached-out prison yard and stony wall, slightly more honeyed than it probably should have been, but as a collection of images, the result is undeniably moving. Thematically, the movie (like the short story by Stephen King that it's based on) is concerned with finding glimmers of hope in the bleakest of places, and Deakins' images were able to find beauty in the same locations. One of the movie's most transcendent triumphant moments is when wrongfully imprisoned Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) finally makes it outside of the prison, opens his arms, to form a cross, and lets the rain fall on him. It's a metaphorically heavy shower with flashes of lightning illuminating Dufresne, and the rain falling in jagged lines. With this imagery, Deakins was able to craft a moment that people would remember forever. As the film continues to grow in stature and be adored year-after-year, it's hard to deny Deakins' role as part of that legacy.
Director Martin Scorsese's lone collaboration with Deakins was 1997's "Kundun," a biographical film depicting the life of the 14th Dalai Lama that, upon its release in 1997, hardly anybody saw. This is a shame, considering the overwhelmingly beautiful images Deakins conjured for the film, captured largely in monastic golds, yellows and reds. Whether it's shots of clouds rolling across the Himalayas or a candlelit scene of a young Lama choosing what objects once belonged to him in a previous life, Deakins' use of depth and focus is incredible, with the edges of the frame sometimes bleeding into an inky nothingness. Other times "Kundun" takes on the scope of a David Lean movie: a single, widescreen shot of a caravan of monks travel with the young Lama away from his village, or a cluttered frame where a group of fallen monks create a ghastly tableau, or a helicopter shot gliding across a placid lake. Deakins' images, coupled with Phillip Glass' unrelenting (but never oppressive) score, help to create one of the more overwhelmingly visual movies Scorsese has ever made (Scorsese's use of fades makes for images that quite literally border on the kaleidoscopic). For his first time at bat, too, Deakins equips himself well to Scorsese's particular visual language, his use of long, fluid shots and whip pans (like in the amazing scene where the new Dalai Lama is being "introduced" to the past Lamas). But the rococo embellishments of Deakins' images never gets in the way of the film's storytelling, which is primarily concerned with the conflict between China and Tibet. What makes the home video release of "Kundun" so tragic, especially since this is the way most people have seen the movie, is that it's improperly formatted, leaving Deakins' crisp visuals neutered and robbed of their robust passion. Like the Dalai Lama, "Kundun" needs to be plucked from obscurity and given spiritual transcendence as a Criterion Blu-ray disc.