Talking Movies

October 7, 2015

Sicario

Emily Blunt is an FBI agent in over her head in the crusade against cartels in director Denis Villeneuve’s gripping thriller of a dirty war.

sicario_image_2

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a ‘thumper’. She kicks in doors to rescue hostages. Or, as in the startling opening sequence, her armoured car kicks in an entire wall before unleashing her gun-toting squad. But all her rescues don’t really make a dent in the war on drugs, so when prosecutor Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) offers her the chance to join a taskforce led by Graver (Josh Brolin) she volunteers. But the taskforce soon starts to trouble her. It’s bad enough being surrounded by Graver’s crew, trigger-happy jocks like Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan), but their stoic DoD ‘adviser’ Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is troublingly mysterious, and their mission soon creeps over the border from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. Her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to quit after that mission erupts into quasi-legal slaughter, but Kate needs the truth.

Sicario is a triumph. Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson’s extraordinary score makes you anxious even before the first image, with its insistent sinister rhythm. At times he almost mischievously quotes Brad Fiedel’s Terminator 2 T-1000 cue, as if to relieve tension, but his melding of digital beats with brass and strings consistently unnerves. Sicario is always riveting, and even when the script (by Sons of Anarchy actor Taylor Sheridan) appears to be losing its tension it’s merely misdirection to increase paranoia. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is jaw-dropping: aerial photography gives a drone’s eye view of the warzone, while a pan across the border-crossing makes Juarez seem incredibly alien, and a climactic sequence with thermal imaging surpasses Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve equals Michael Mann in his staging of a prisoner transfer in cartel-run Juarez and a gun battle in a stalled motorway jam.

The opening titles tell us originally ‘sicario’ were Jews murdering occupying Romans. Like Villeneuve’s Incendies, this is a contemporary film with mythic echoes of savagery past. Kate in her conflict with Alejandro is Creon to his Antigone: devotion to upholding the law is the right thing for Kate, where Alejandro believes in breaking the law to do the right thing. Meanwhile Graver’s cynical “If you can’t stop 20% of Americans putting stuff up their noses and in their arms, let’s have some order at least” is not only as grimly realistic as the similar dirty war tactics depicted in ’71 but also oddly reminiscent of the simultaneously historically inspiring and dubiously propagandistic message of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. A major achievement for Villeneuve is that, despite Deakins and Brolin’s involvement with No Country for Old Men, Sicario is its own universe.

Sicario, powered by Blunt’s assured lead performance as a heroine too dogged for her own good, grips from its thunderous opening to its soft-spoken and extremely resonant last lines.

5/5

Advertisements

July 25, 2011

A Better Life

Chris Weitz, whose last two directorial outings were the unbearably awful The Golden Compass and Twilight: New Moon, causes the earth to shift on its axis by following them up with an intelligent drama…

A Better Life could be uncharitably described as ‘The Bicycle Thieves, outsourced to Mexicans’ as the plot is driven by the increasingly desperate search by a father and son for a stolen vehicle vital to the father’s employment. Our hero Carlos (Demian Bechir) is a stolid gardener living illegally in America and working in Beverly Hills, but living far away from such luxuries. He sleeps on the couch while his brattish teenage son Luis (seriously, this kid is as annoying as Damian Wayne in recent Batman comics, and that’s some going) takes their house’s one bedroom. Carlos’ back-breaking labour is all for the sake of earning enough money to give a well-educated Luis a better life, and he seizes the chance to buy the truck of his boss Blasco Martinez (Quantum of Solace’s villainous general Joaquin Cosio). However, Carlos has become American enough to suffer from the maxim ‘no good deed goes unpunished’, and so begins a desperate search for the truck which is his livelihood, and which he cannot ask the police to trace…

Demian Bechir is a huge star in Mexico, unsurprising given that he looks like Ryan Reynolds in ten years’ time; if Reynolds came from below rather than above the American border. Bechir’s character-filled face wonderfully conveys indefatigable stoicism, endless compassion, and steely will. The villain is a subtle mixture of malicious guile and motiveless compassion, something which infuriates Jose Julian’s Luis, even as he convincingly comes to respect his father’s values which he previously despised. Their reconciliation is part of a fascinating examination of identity. Blasco wanted enough money to buy his own farm in Mexico, Carlos just wanted out of Mexico, but he’s quick to rebuke a sneering Luis that with a sombrero on him Luis is instantly another Gaucho, for all his assimilation.

The startling first shot of Luis’s school makes it look like a prison, an impression which the film pointedly does not dispel, as the system has given up hope on these cultural immigrants. The legally resident Latinos, like Luis, communicate solely in the language of gangsta rap, which leads to thinking and acting in ways with only two endpoints – jail or morgue. The stupidity of appropriating this culture and rejecting their own is exposed by the blind terror Luis displays when he has to venture into South Central, the source of the culture he’s adopted, where he sees a slogan daubed on a wall – ‘Too Many Mexicans. Not Enough Bullets’…

Weitz and originating producer Paul Junger Witt have crafted an affecting story of the people who live in the shadows of a sun-kissed world, and this is well worth seeing.

3.5/5

Blog at WordPress.com.