The Losers: Why Roger Deakins is Overdue for an Oscar

By  · Published on February 16th, 2015

Warner Bros.

All this week, we’re celebrating the losers – those talented filmmakers whom Oscar has foolishly overlooked. Kyle Turner, Chief Editor of Movie Mezzanine’s Balcony Blog gets us started with a look at the many looks of a great DP.

Roger Deakins has spent most of his illustrious career as the Leonardo DiCaprio of cinematographers; the guy whose work we all love, whose work is acknowledged by the big folks at the Academy Awards, and then promptly brushed off in favor of honoring someone else’s work instead. He’s been nominated for an Academy Award eleven times without a win, making this year’s nomination for Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken his twelfth. Regardless of his lack of Oscar hardware, we’re lucky to have such a master in our midst, a man who can craft some of the most gorgeous screen images of the modern era. Each frame speaks for itself, and none more than in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo and Sam Mendes’ Skyfall.

It’s hard to see where we are, the screen so blisteringly white as it opens up. There are tiny details, but past the text that asserts that the film is based on a true story and that all the names of the people involved have been changed, there’s a vastness about the land which is lonely and, juxtaposed against the dark color of the tundra. The only details present in the frame, a car slowly making its way towards the camera and the telephone poles on either side of the rode, are blackish, diffused and mediated by the harsh whiteness, which is more like a colder blue, indicative of the frigidity of the area and of the characters. We are in Brainerd, Minnesota, looking in on a world we are foreign to.

The folks that populate Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo are warm, nice, pleasant; adjectives that are either alienating to characters like Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) or far too familiar as facades to someone like Officer Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

Deakins’ cinematography, which was nominated for the Academy Award in 1996, is of two minds: it’s at once hyper familiar with the landscape and people it looks at but also completely alienated. It is, in that way, kind of paradoxical. Perhaps it’s because of this paradox that the Coens are occasionally accused of playing a wrathful, smug God in their films: they’re outside looking in and inside looking out, but without the tenderness. Arguably though, the presence of Gunderson seems to temper whatever cynicism may or may not be present in the film, perhaps unlike a lot of other Coen Brothers films.

Though the Coens are rarely compared to Robert Altman, they all create these panoramas of people, places and things, and while Deakins is more than game in examining the landscape of frigidity in more geographical terms, his camerawork is more interesting when examining the people of that landscape, occasionally inhabiting their headspaces. We see Jerry Lundegaard frantically trying to figure out what to do regarding a large amount of money and the men who have his wife through a pane of glass. We see Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare), one of the crooks, peering into the picaresque home of the Lundegaards, the shot returning to Mrs. Lundegaard turning from her television to the glass patio door looking at someone looking in. We watch as Jerry negotiates with his father-in-law in a family dinner from a few tables away. Though the camera remains stationary much of the time in Fargo, the dynamicisim is in the perspective: as aforementioned, we’re either looking in or looking out; sometimes observing one doing the other.

Columbia Pictures

While neither Deakins nor the Coens necessarily relish the medium close up, it’s used often in juxtaposition of the world they live in; so large and endlessly confusing, infinitely bizarre, and, much to the misunderstanding of Officer Gunderson, painfully impure.

And while sterility was used to an advantage to illustrate austerity, Deakins can use his artfulness to ground a populist character in dramatic and political context. Such is the case with his work for the 23rd James Bond film Skyfall, which takes its pleasures in darkness, lush colors reminiscent of Christopher Doyle’s work on In the Mood for Love, and somewhat Kubrickian symmetry.

It’s hard to overstate how gorgeous Skyfall is, and partially because the concept of a “beautiful” James Bond film is so incredibly foreign to anyone who is even minimally acquainted with the franchise. What do you expect from a Bond film? Action, cars, garden variety misogyny, gadgets, nice locations that are competently shot. But you don’t really expect the images to have a weight to them like they do here; they’re not only beautiful, but they’re also integral to the direction Bond is heading both canonically and dramatically.

The film opens in very shallow focus, shooting down a nondescript hallway, and the only thing clear is the low backlight that illustrates a familiar, albeit blurry, silhouette. The figure makes his way towards the camera, raises his firearm, and looks just past us, his eye line illuminated. Thus, what’s clear is that Bond is ready to get down and dirty, the only one who can see in a world shrouded in darkness.

Shooting a world in darkness seems to be a recurring theme in Deakins’ work, regardless of whether the shots themselves are literally dark: from The Shawshank Redemption to The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford, and from Revolutionary Road to Prisoners, Deakins might be the exemplary cinematographer for a post-9/11 world drenched in a cynical attitude.

And that’s what Bond’s latest outing is all about, no? It extends the ideas of new world disorder that Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale introduced, ideas full of paranoia and chaos. It’s Deakins’s versatility that comes in handy, then, given his ability to find order in that chaos. Take for instance the chase in the pre-titles sequence: Bond jumps off of a crane into a recently torn open train car with suave casualness, framed perfectly by the remaining border that looks as if it had been gnawed off.

But the ideas of uncertainty in a world where terrorism is no longer limited to the natural world, Deakins’s ability to articulate such anxiety is particularly impressive in one sequence: the Shanghai battle. Undoubtedly the most gorgeous sequence ever featured in a Bond film, 007 attempts to stop a hit man way up high in an immaculate glass building. There’s only the illumination of a bright blue sign to provide any light. Bond slowly makes his way towards the assassin, and, when the latter takes notice, the sequence which started as a high tension stealth operation turns into hand to hand combat. But it doesn’t look like a battle. Silhouetted against the sign, it’s more like a ballet, a deadly game of shadow play that is at once beautiful and fatal. Just like delving into Bond’s psyche, which Mendes attempts to break into. Just like dealing with the real world. Just like coming to terms with the power governments and secret agencies play with. A deadly shadow ballet.

The way Deakins elevated a character who is, in all seriousness, kind of silly is worth its weight in blocky casino plaques. To inhabit two perspectives which are nearly antithetical to one another in the tundra of the Midwest, blending naiveté and cynicism, is also a unique achievement. We could go on and on about Deakins’s filmography, an artist who can achieve what his employers ask of him while never restraining his own voice.

So, hat’s off to Roger Deakins, a man who likes to play in the shadows.