Roger Deakins' Cinematography: His 15 Coolest Shots
Honorable Mentions: Rango, WALL-E, How To Train Your Dragon, and Further Adventures in Animation
Pixar hired Deakins as a visual consultant on their post-human robot odyssey, and since then he's also worked with the animation teams behind How to Train Your Dragon, Rango, Puss in Boots, and Rise of the Guardians. While Deakins is always modest about his role in the films, his influence shines through in fascinating ways, particularly in the different ways that the films incorporate shadows and negative space into a genre that tends to value over-saturated imagery. It's a thrilling side-career for a cinematographer who has already given cinema some of its most defining visual moments.
15. Guns in the Air, Jarhead
Deakins' first collaboration with Sam Mendes is a tough watch: It's a war film about near-existential boredom, and is also itself quite boring. Until the final act, when fighting breaks out. Deakins takes great advantage of the visual possibilities — empty landscapes, burning oilfields — but the most memorable scene comes right near the end, when the surviving soldiers exultantly unload their weapons into the air. The shot of Peter Sarsgaard's unhinged Troy finally getting to fire his weapon is rich with meaning: It's somehow ejaculatory and impotent all at once.
14. The Great Escape, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
O Brother was one of the first movies to use digital color correction, and its bourbon-tinted visual palette proved influential in film and Instagram alike. But the colors only tell half the story: Deakins and longtime collaborators the Coen brothers gave the film a visual look halfway between a silent-film comedy and Southern Gothic. That's established right away in this first shot of our heroes. The extraordinary depth of field is epic — check out that chain gang in the distance.
13. The Prisoner, Prisoners
Deakins earned one of his many Oscar nominations for Denis Villeneuve's wintry thriller. The aesthetic of Prisoners is less openly showy than other films on this list, with Deakins adopting a chilly-monochrome color scheme. Which makes this nightmare-spotlight shadowy shot of the brutalized Paul Dano stand out even more.
12. The Last Gunshot, True Grit
Most gun battles in Westerns are handled with close-ups. But when Matt Damon has to test his long-distance accuracy on one of True Grit's black hats, Deakins sets the camera up from his sniper perspective. It's one of the quietest ends for a Western baddie — the villain's slight shift as the bullet hits him barely even registers on the small screen. (Making this shot even cooler: The ambient possibility that it's an homage to the opening of For a Few Dollars More.
11. Encounter in the Forest, The Village
It's M. Night Shyamalan's first laughably bad movie, but The Village is also a visual feast. Deakins' visuals fully deliver on the dark-fairy-tale tone in a way Shyamalan's script never does. It reaches a climax during the encounter between Bryce Dallas Howard and a ''monster'' — quote-unquote, no spoilers — with the deep colors of their robes clashing wildly with the forest. Random thought: The Village might actually be an incredible silent movie.
10. Sunset of the West, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
It's hard to pick just one image from Andrew Dominik's mythic neo-Western. Deakins' work turned Jesse James into one of the most flat-out beautiful films ever made. But it's hard to beat this shot of Brad Pitt staring into the sunset. It's mournfully elegiac, but also eerie, casting Pitt's outlaw as a not-quite-human specter.
9. Sinking Under, House of Sand and Fog
Here's a question: Can a single shot sum up a performer's entire career? Jennifer Connelly spends most of this praised-but-kind-of-forgotten drama in a steadily declining state of unglued melancholy. It all builds up to a suicide attempt in the tub, captured by Deakins in a riveting image. It's hard to think of a more Jennifer Connelly-esque moment: That weird mix of aggressive-depressive tough suffering that radiates throughout Requiem for a Dream, A Beautiful Mind, and even Labyrinth.
8. Heisenberg, Part 1, The Man Who Wasn't There
The Coens' most stylish visual experiment, The Man Who Wasn't There, was shot in color but converted to black-and-white to match the film's retro-noir aesthetic. The whole thing's a visual wonder, but the center of the movie is a long soliloquy by Tony Shalhoub's shady lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider, which begins with this Kafkaesque spotlight-through-the-prison-bars shot. The speech that follows is an elucidation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle — but much like this shot, it's unclear whether we're supposed to take the speech seriously or as parody.
7. Heisenberg, Part 2, A Serious Man
How many cinematographers get the chance to visually portray an upper-level theory of quantum mechanics — and not just once, but twice? The Coens returned to Heisenberg again almost a decade later in their small-town fable, and the final shot of his Uncertainy Principle lecture captures A Serious Man's tone — mid-century Americana by way of the Old Testament. It also perfectly portrays the mindset of Michael Stuhlbarg's Larry Gopnik, a man who is either the center of the universe or a meaningless speck adrift in a sea of eternal confusion.
6. Lenin vs. Lennon, The Big Lebowski
Not all great shots need to pop-pop-pop visually. Like few other modern cinematographers, Deakins seems to implicitly understand how to energize even the most average interactions. That comes through in a scene from the very talky Lebowski — it comes right after the introduction of ''Jesus'' — when The Dude, Walter, and Donny just hang out and talk for a unbroken 90-second-plus take. There's a lot of weird magic in this shot — the bowlers in the background, the scruffy-holy-trinity staging, Donny confusing Lenin the Russian communist revolutionary with Lennon the Beatle. Everyone can make a sunset look cool, but one guesses it's Deakins' steady hand shooting dialogue that has made him a favorite collaborator of the talk-loving Coens.
5. Getting Off The Boat, Sid and Nancy
Here's another question: Can a single shot sum up an entire cultural era? Director Alex Cox's punk-rock biopic dives headfirst into London's late-'70s generational anarchy. In his first great effort as director of photography, Deakins shoots much of the movie with the gutter-gloss of a magazine photo spread. But it's the long traveling shot following a boat party that sticks in your head. The titular lovers watch as the cops bust up their fellow partygoers, variously amused, freaked out, and completely unaware of their surroundings.
4. Opera, The Shawshank Redemption
The image of Tim Robbins thrusting his hands into the air in a Jesus pose is more famous — and the hugging-by-the-ocean finale is more box-of-Kleenex emotional. But the best shot in Frank Darabont's prison epic comes earlier, when Tim Robbins' convict breaks a little bad, playing ''The Marriage of Figaro'' over the penitentiary's loudspeakers. Essentially all of Shawshank Redemption is shot at ground level with the imprisoned cast, but Deakins' camera briefly rises up from the ground to capture the enraptured prison population. It's a lovely moment which suggests the transcendent freedom just out of reach of Shawshank's characters.
3. The British Superhero, Skyfall
Deakins' dynamic and wonderfully over-the-top cinematography resulted in the best-looking James Bond film since the glory days of Ken Adams' production design. Skyfall is filled with eye-grabbing setpieces: The neon-mirror fight to the death in Shanghai, the long-take introduction of Javier Bardem's Silva, the respectively color-blasted and monochrome hellscapes of Macau and Scotland. Still, the image that sticks in your head is this shot of Craig's Bond etched against the London skyline. It's the kind of ridiculously iconic shot that risks just looking ridiculous, but it works perfectly in the context of a franchise celebrating half a century of cultural dominion. Bond is actually looking at the former headquarters of MI6, staring into his — and his nation's — past. How resonant was this shot? It's already been imitated by another beloved oft-rebooted British hero.
2. The Empty Parking Lot, Fargo
It's difficult to ascribe a signature motif to a cinematographer — especially someone like Deakins, who has worked with several different directors alongside his far-flung experiments with the Coens — but some of Deakins' best work revolves around the visual possibilities of snow. He seems to love playing with the negative-space whiteness of frozen landscapes. See: Prisoners, Jesse James, True Grit, and most of all Fargo, the Coen brothers' winter Western-noir. There's not a dull shot in Fargo, but the image of lonely William H. Macy walking to his lonely car in a lonely parking lot sums up the movie's God's-eye-view of human absurdity. Heck, Deakins' shot pretty much sums up everything you need to know about the Coenography.
1. Might His Quietus Make, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
Like I said, it's tough to pick just one shot from Jesse James — so I didn't. The best scene in the movie finds Pitt walking over an icy lake, talking about suicide. Like the film, the sequence is draped in death — Pitt shoots his own reflection, while the subject of his conversation with Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell) is actually his eventual killer, Robert. It's basically Jesse James' version of Hamlet's ''To be or not to be'' speech. In the central shot of the sequence, Deakins' camera shoots Pitt (swaddled in furs) like some kind of dying animal, with a wintry landscape that gives the whole thing the evocative aura of landscape painting. It's a shot that brings together so many of the great cinematographer's talents — vast depth of field, the just-right mix of color and monochrome, naturalist imagery, and, of course, snow.