'Prisoners' Cinematographer Roger Deakins' Top 5 Films

Roger Deakins' Top 5 Films

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.


Kundun” (1997)
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.


The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)
Deakins’ collaborations with the Coens have been exemplary each time out, there is no denying this. From the big budget period sets of “The Hudsucker Proxy” to the snowy Midwestern landscapes of “Fargo” to the elegant mixture of film noir intensity and Western locales in “No Country for Old Men,” Deakins work with the Coens is consistently dazzling. But there isn’t a movie the team has made together that is quite as pick-your-jaw-up-off-the-floor as “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” This was during an experimentally playful time for Coens and Deakins; the year before the team had done some really amazing things with the burgeoning field of post-production color correction and manipulation on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (The kind of thing that we can all do now on Instagram, but at the time was incredibly cutting edge.) For “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” they decided to make a movie in black-and-white. Like ‘O Brother,’ though, it was a process done after-the-fact. For foreign markets, they were contractually obligated to produce a color version. So they shot the film in color and desaturated it later, choosing where to make the shadows even darker or the lighting even more contrast-y. The results are images that are seared onto your brain: the light seeping into an empty department store, the way that James Gandolfini presses Billy Bob Thornton against a plane of glass, making it look like the lens of the camera is cracking along with the glass, the oily blackness of blood running down a man’s throat, or the uncanny way a UFO peeks out from behind the posts of a prison wall (computer-generated, but seeming, like the rest of the movie, to be produced using old fashioned technologies, like a stop-motion Ray Harryhausen creation). There isn’t anything particularly bold about Deakins’ camerawork in “Man Who Wasn’t There,” and often the camera doesn’t even move much (quite different than the sometimes frantic way that the Coens tend to operate), which makes the black-and-white photography even more effective and powerful. The stillness allows you to drink up the images, each one more beautiful than the last. Even Richard Jenkins sitting on a porch takes on a kind of painterly glow.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)
Released the same year as “No Country for Old Men,” Andrew Dominik‘s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is just as stunning an achievement. And right from the start we see his masterful hand at work. The nighttime train robbery is one of the most amazing sequences Deakins has ever had a hand in, visualized largely by a single light traveling through the dark woods, which illuminates the criminals, dressed in menacing sack cloth hoods like Jason in “Friday the 13th, Part 2.” That sequence is incredible for a number of reasons, including the shot where the camera “catches” the front of the train and then travels along with it, and for the moment when Jesse James steps into the beam of the train, his silhouette a black blob against the light. Deakins used a bleach bypass process to enhance the blacks and wash out the color of the images, and worked on something he called “Deakinizers,” which gave off the amazing “pinhole” look of some of the images, with the center of the shot being crispy focused but the borders looking frayed and blurry. “Most of those shots were used for transitional moments, and the idea was to create the feeling of an old-time camera. We weren’t trying to be nostalgic, but we wanted those shots to be evocative. The idea sprang from an old photograph Andrew liked, and we did a lot of tests to mimic the look of the photo,” he said of the process. “Andrew had a whole lot of photographic references for the look of the movie, mainly the work of still photographers, but also images clipped from magazines, stills from ‘Days of Heaven‘ and even Polaroids taken on location that looked interesting or unusual. He hung all of them up in the long corridor of the production office. That was a wonderful idea, because every day we’d all pass by [images] that immediately conveyed the tone of the movie he wanted to make.” The results added to the haunting naturalism of the movie, which includes other indelible moments like the one where Paul Schneider follows a young woman to an out house, illuminated by a single candle, and, of course, the actual assassination, which Deakins shoots with such a stillness that you can practically see the dust hanging in the air, caught between shafts of light. “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a movie that feels like some kind of antique treasure, and much of this has to do with Deakins’ timeless photography, which netted him yet another Oscar nomination.  


Skyfall” (2012)
When Sam Mendes took the reigns of the James Bond franchise, he wanted it to feel different and, more importantly, look different. Deakins had worked with Mendes twice before, on wartime drama “Jarhead” and period melodrama “Revolutionary Road,” and he knew that his eye was something that would set “Skyfall” apart. He was right. “Skyfall” is, without question, the most beautiful-looking James Bond movie ever. And it’s all thanks to Deakins. Just think of the many moments that wouldn’t have been achieved without his artful eye: the backlit fight in Shanghai (captured largely in a single shot), with the animated signs in the background; the entire lead up to Macau, with Bond riding in a gondola surrounded by Chinese lanterns; the reveal of Javier Bardem‘s desolated island stronghold; the climactic, darkly lit showdown at Bond’s ancestral home; the shots of Bardem and Daniel Craig slogging through a field, their breath hanging in large, clumpy clouds in front of them. These would be indelible images anywhere, but in the context of a Bond movie they border on being legendary. When we sat down last year with Mendes for the movie, he told us that he wanted it to look different. Then he excitedly asked, “Could you tell?” Yes, we could tell alright. For his efforts, Deakins was nominated for the Oscar for the tenth time and failed to secure the award for the tenth time. Few, if any, $1 billion-grossing blockbusters have ever looked this stunning. 

Of course, nearly all of Deakins’ work is worth noting (except maybe “Doubt“—what was up with all those Dutch angles?) Things like “Beautiful Mind” and “The Village” are sub-par movies but feature exemplary camerawork and lighting, and even when Deakins isn’t firing on all cylinders like with, say, “The Company Men,” it usually has little to do with his professionalism and artistry and more to do with a lack of inspiration elsewhere behind the camera. We can’t wait to see what Deakins shoots next. And honestly who do we have to kill to get him to win an Oscar?

Thoughts? What’s your favorite Roger Deakins-shot film? Weigh in below. In the meantime, check out this little documentary about working with the Coen Brothers, Scorsese and more via LoSceicco1976.