If you want to watch dark, gritty psychological thrillers that leave your head spinning as you think back through the course of the movie, you should check out Canadian filmmaker and director Denis Villeneuve. 

Villeneuve began creating films in the 1990s which earned him a strong following in Canada. His first two films “August 32rd on Earth” (1998) and “Maelström” (2000) garnered support and attention throughout Canada, but his fourth film “Incendies” (2010) introduced his work to an international audience. 

Then, he followed up his recent success with “Prisoners” (2013) which was nominated for a number of awards including an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Cinematography. Since Villeneuve’s directoral success, he’s directed and produced many big-name films and was ranked one of the top director’s to watch. Some of his most well-known movies are “Sicario” (2015), “Enemy” (2013), “Arrival” (2016) and “Blade Runner 2049” (2017). 

Characteristics of Villeneuve’s Films

His films, though each have distinct plots, share similar themes and motifs. He creates slow-burn movies, and if you aren’t paying attention, you might miss a crucial aspect of the story. His films follow similar character arcs where the protagonist is thrown into a world full of questions that they must find the answers to. His unique storytelling abilities engage the audience and make them feel as if they are solving the problem in real time with the protagonist.

Villeneuve uses a distinct form of cinematography that warps the physical layout of each film. He uses inverted shots, wide shots and flipped imagery to visually illustrate the haunting, surreal themes in his films. The color palettes and scores also play a key role which fit the aesthetic of the story. 

Most notably, his films tend to have twist endings. These aren’t the typical twist endings that are common in films either. They’re subtle and understated – leaving the audience with enough information to fill in the gaps without outright telling viewers what happens. Villeneuve is an intelligent director, and his films leave audience members with a great deal of information to unpack and reflect on. 

Here are two recommendations for Villeneuve films if you’re interested in watching dark, psychological thrillers. 

Prisoners

The plot centers around the abduction of two girls and the police investigation that follows. After the police release a suspect from custody, one of the fathers – believing the released suspect was the one who kidnapped his daughter – decides to take matters into his own hands. Prisoners follows the investigation of a detective determined to uncover the truth and a father who uses any means necessary to find his daughter. The story illustrates the lengths a father would go to to save his child, and addresses questions of decaying morality, religion and family. 

In true Villeneuve form, the film has a distinct color palette consisting of grainy, earthy tones that match the gritty feel of the story. You must pay attention from the beginning of the film to pick up on subtle clues that lead to the overall reveal at the end of the movie. If you want to watch a police investigation movie with strong themes of family bonds and warped moral values, watch Prisoners on Hulu, YouTube TV or Apple TV.

Arrival 

This sci-fi film follows a linguist who is hired by the U.S. Army to communicate with extraterrestrial life that landed on Earth. The aliens landed in 12 other places on Earth and the world is on the brink of a global war. The linguist must race against time to uncover the meaning behind their language and communicate with the aliens before the world erupts in war. 

The blue, sterile color palette matches the clinical approach the U.S. takes toward the alien lifeforms. The visual aesthetic of the film creates a sense of bleakness and angst regarding the human condition. The film deals with themes of communication, human fear of the unknown, and the ways language shapes our understanding of the world around us. If you’re looking for a sci-fi film with more depth and commentary on the human condition, watch Arrival on Amazon Prime.

Bonus: Dune

Villeneuve’s adaptation of the 1965 novel, Dune, deserves special recognition for its visual imagery, cinematography and score. The film takes sensory overload to a whole new level – but it works. If you’re looking for a classic sci-fi, otherworld story with mind blowing visuals paired with haunting music, watch Dune on HBO Max, Amazon Prime or Hulu.