You know great cinematography is working its magic on you when it delivers a visceral jolt to the senses. You’re no longer a passive observer but an active participant within the images flickering onscreen. For over three decades, cinematographer Roger Deakins has created cinematic landscapes so vivid and immersive that I feel as if I have visited them. I remember not only how they looked, but how they felt.
I was seven years old when I first experienced his work in a theater. The film was Agnieszka Holland’s “The Secret Garden,” and it proved to be one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life. I’ll never forget the overhead shot of the young heroine looking down upon a pale boy as he lies in the bed where he has been held captive for the entirety of his life. The scene is lit in such a way that the boy is initially indiscernible from the tangled mass of sheets that surround him—he appears as if he were woven into their very fabric. Once the pint-sized heroes escape their gloomy mansion and find the titular garden in full bloom, Deakins’s imagery casts a rapturous spell. It really does make you believe that the garden’s overwhelming beauty possesses nourishing powers capable of leading the troubled characters toward catharsis, growth and reconciliation.
A year later, Deakins earned his first Oscar nomination for “The Shawshank Redemption,” and would go on to receive 11 more, but he has yet to win one. The indelible sensory experiences he has provided me through his images are too numerous to count. I can still feel the frostbitten frustration of the hapless car salesman struggling to scrape ice off his windshield in “Fargo,” the warm eroticism of a young man’s sexual awakening stifled by the chill of disillusionment in “The Reader” and the sweat-caked fury of a ravaged prisoner determined to survive against all odds in “Unbroken.”
In anticipation of Deakins’s latest picture, Denis Villeneuve’s acclaimed Cannes selection “Sicario” (set to open September 18th), I’ve compiled sixteen images from the cinematographer’s career that provide a lingering glimpse at his genius.
In order of appearance: Sid and Nancy (1986); The Secret Garden (1993); The Shawshank Redemption (1994); Dead Man Walking (1995); Fargo (1996); The Big Lebowski (1998); The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001); A Beautiful Mind (2001); No Country for Old Men (2007); The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); Doubt (2008); The Reader (2008); A Serious Man (2009); Skyfall (2012); Prisoners (2013); Unbroken (2014)