Sicario (2015)

★★★★

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Sicario PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (US); October 8th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Action; Crime; Drama

Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin

For Denis Villeneuve, Sicario marks something of a departure from Enemy’s odd intricacies and the personal anguish of Prisoners. It has more in common with the latter — a nasty streak and a bleak underbelly — but Villeneuve’s third English-language outing is a different beast entirely. It’s a very cold film. There is so much bloodshed that you almost become impervious to feeling, though attempts to humanise its various players are admirable and fairly successful. Sicario’s concerns are wrapped up in the (under)world of grisly cartels, and in how the war on drugs has fostered moral imprecision, even on the ‘good side’.

FBI agent Kate Macer (a brilliant Emily Blunt) is part of that good side, and one of only a few individuals whose outlook relays consistent righteousness. We realise instantly that Kate is both strong and capable, yet not at all infallible. Nobody is for that matter — when her team finds a myriad of deceased bodies plastered behind the walls of a house, physical and mental repulsion take over (there’s a lot of vomiting). This discovery triggers an IED explosion that kills two agents, setting in motion a covert investigation into some serious criminal wrongdoing. Kate, driven by a need for revenge, volunteers for the job.

She has to navigate a landscape dominated by important-looking men wearing suits and asking personal questions (“Do you have a husband?”). Josh Brolin’s Matt Garver is one of those men, an advisor-cum-field officer whose macho posture is supported by a spine of arrogance — for some reason he wears sandals during mission briefs. Garver leads the field operation, batting back Kate’s inquisitive questions with vague swings; you get the sense his unwillingness to reveal all has less to do with bureaucracy infecting law than it does pomposity.

Pitting Kate in amongst cowboys and sheriffs and gruff Texans with gristly beards seems to be Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s way of acknowledging reality while also challenging the effectiveness of a masculine culture. While most of the men — not all, Kate’s partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) is similarly noble, though he too is portrayed as an outsider — are energised by the presence of their egos, Kate, indiscreet and somewhat inexperienced, is our key moral fibre. It’s through her gaze that we peer into an immoral world, and it increasingly feels like only her actions can reshape said immorality.

Sicario is clear in its admission that nothing is clear. People are neither good nor bad (in fairness some are quite bad) but instead exist somewhere along an ethical spectrum. A Mexican cop whom we visit throughout the film is shown interacting with his family, particularly his football-loving son. Joe Walker’s editing — which cuts from the search operation to the officer’s modest home — implicates the cop in some form of corruption, yet his family-conscious roots are never invalidated. The vast majority of people on-screen are treated as human beings, a trait often missing in films that depict warring factions (see American Sniper).

If government agencies and drug cartels are the factions at war, Juárez, Mexico is the battlefield. The city is introduced as a final level boss: maze-like, audibly inscribed with tales of dread, bookended by a pulsating score. It’s the urban equivalent of Everest’s Death Zone — the longer you stay, the more likely you are to die. Perennial, and future, Oscar nominee Roger Deakins often gives scenes time to breath, funding the perception of encroaching danger. Civic infection has wreaked havoc upon the people of Juárez, so much so that civilian life is now inseparable from criminal activity. Just ask Silvio, the aforementioned policeman.

Early on, we take a drive through the cartel capital in a stretch of truly exceptional filmmaking. It’s tense, eerily subdued. It makes you feel ill, and its conclusion ushers forth one of the most anxiety-ridden traffic jams in silver screen history. Following the film’s incredible opening third (which is ostensibly a 40-minute horrorfest) the pulse inevitable drops. What follows isn’t quite as interesting; it’s the downtime between assignments, where Kate and co. swan around bars and stare diligently at maps, invoked to add character depth.

One of those characters is Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), the titular sicario. Del Toro saunters on screen parading a mystique that suggests he ain’t to be messed with. He folds his jacket even though it is already creased, a move that mirrors his make-up: externally unruffled but internally blazing. The actor has that grizzled veteran demeanour, his hitman reminiscent of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West. Gillick says very little, affording extra reverence to the few words he does speak: “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time”. Or, in layman’s terms, conquering a complicated cartel network is inescapably complex.

Lines are blurred and identities masked in Sicario’s post-9/11 society. This is Zero Dark Thirty with a narcotic skin. There is a wonderful sequence that precedes the final act (at which point the tension re-escalates): darkened human silhouettes descend into the black abyss below a brooding, orange-tinted skyscape. It’s a sublimely serene moment in a film otherwise dominated by impending threat. The serenity, like life in Juárez, is short-lived.

Sicario - Emily Blunt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Lionsgate

Prisoners (2013)

★★★★

Prisoners PosterDirector: Denis Villeneuve

Release Date: September 20th, 2013 (US); September 27th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Crime; Drama; Mystery

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman

There is a great deal of religious allegory laced throughout Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve’s morbid entry in the child abduction genre (when wouldn’t morbidity factor?). The first voice we hear belongs to Keller Dover, played by Hugh Jackman, who relays the Lord’s Prayer “Our Father” with solemn gruff. Shortly thereafter, the dad of two converses with his son about the need to be prepared for impending natural disasters — floods, subsequent humanitarian crises etc. These early religious influxes glare from the screen, but as the film progresses it is driven by a more subtle assertion: loss of children equals loss of faith, and loss humanity.

Prisoners isn’t really about religion at all. It’s about our mundane and/or extreme reactions to potential tragedy. We follow two men, broadly speaking, each fulfilling his perceived duty in the wake of a double disappearance. Keller Dover is one of those men, whose young daughter and friend go missing on Thanksgiving. Perennial show-stealer Jake Gyllenhaal is the other man, the detective on the case. Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay awards ample development time to the pair of them; just when you think the film is erring too much on one side of the story, it shifts to the other perspective.

Gyllenhaal’s Loki relays that sort of downtrodden look, one that suggests he may be fed up with his role in the dank Pennsylvania logging town. He relentlessly blinks as if forcing himself to stay awake. We learn from the source that Loki has solved every case he’s ever been assigned, and you get the sense that is probably because he routinely swap sleep for work. Keller, likewise, bears a dishevelled appearance most of the time, his gruff beard and hardened exterior perfectly matching the woody setting. Even Keller’s chequered shirt is dark grey and army green.

When the pair first interact following the girls’ disappearance, Jackman is brilliantly emotional; enraged to no end, with bloodshot eyes and a reckless aura that serves as a basis for what is to come. On the other hand Gyllenhaal evokes detachment, as if Loki has already been down this horrid route before. To him, it seems, what happens next is a formality. It is a fascinating — if not entirely surprising — clash that continues to evolve without genericism.

Roger Deakins’ use of a woozy grey colour palette encourages the dour and desolate mood. Cinematographer Deakins is always an ever-present during awards season (he was nominated for his work here, and has been on the final ballot for his numerous efforts alongside the Coen brothers) but, in one of the circuit’s most egregious ongoing shams, the camera master has never won an Oscar. He sets the scene ominously in Prisoners: when it rains, it really does pour.

For around an hour Deakins meticulously cuts away from any violence, allowing our imagination to run wild. The first instance of visceral brutality comes via the fists of dad Keller, flipping the morality of good and bad. Terrence Howard plays the father of the other lost girl, his ethics wavering but without as much force. Keller arrives at barbarity through his own prejudice — he believes he has the culprit, but the law disagrees. To Keller, his psyche crumbling under the weight of anguish and guilt, the law has become sterile and justice is best served cold.

The film challenges us to consider his predicament, and whether or not his actions are justified. That Hollywood babyface Hugh Jackman is the one inverting right and wrong only serves to complicate matters further. Even the local priest is a drunk, and worse. The reaction of Keller’s wife, mother to one of the missing girls, is a little harder to swallow. Played well by Maria Bello, she blames her husband for what has happened. Though this might be a truthful and raw circumstantial response, there is a disconnect between the overstretched attempt at melodramatic realism and the more grounded troubled realism surrounding Keller.

Villeneuve’s film is also about systematic failure. It calls into question how two girls, both of whom should be safe in their own neighbourhood, can go missing without a trace. The fact that Loki always seems to be fatigued suggests that he is overworked. You applaud his tenacity and sympathise with his increasing hopelessness — especially as he juggles the intense job with spit-fire tirades from the victims’ families — but you also lament the inadequate law set up. Keller is unable to actively assist the ongoing investigation due to legalities, the structure keeping him and his wife at arm’s length.

The movie reflects Zodiac’s overbearing misery (and also its literal puzzlement), and Gyllenhaal’s appearance also recounts his Nightcrawler aesthetic — post-gaunt, perhaps. He has to be restrained as the detective, but also as the co-star. Jackman, quite obviously, is the one doing most of the emoting. He gives a stunted powerhouse performance, a broken one, a trembling one. “You look very tired.” And he is. Paul Dano plays one of the primary suspects and although the nature of his character generally renders him silent, his performance manages to be one of internal terror and external creep.

“No-one took them. Nothing happened. They’re just gone,” says one women dejectedly. And that’s the mantra by which the film lives. It keeps us guessing to the point where we might never find out what happened. This slow burning premise echoes of the first season of The Killing; very thorough, manoeuvring this way and that, affording its audience time to think. The pace is slow and film is long at two and a half hours, but the pace would be slow for the families involved. A sudden burst of energy towards the conclusion ushers in an incredibly well-executed car sequence.

Prisoners reconstructs the pillars of humanness and purity. What would we do in similar circumstances? Having initially caught his suspect with fuzzily correct intentions, doubt soon creeps into Keller’s mind. Yet he never releases his captive. As time wears on, it becomes apparent that Keller is only disseminating pain in order to serve his own emptiness — it’s a temporary stop-gap that might, somehow, eventually lead to a permanent solution.

Prisoners - Gyllenhaal & Jackman

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright: Warner Bros. Pictures

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

★★★★

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Release Date: October 26, 2001 (UK); November 2nd, 2001 (US limited)

Genre: Crime; Drama

Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson

There’s something incessantly comforting about The Man Who Wasn’t There. Maybe it’s the traditional and dearly received monochrome visual style. Or a number of idiosyncratic, often comical characters. Perhaps it’s even that distinct narrative structure that the Coen brothers regularly implement into their meticulously crafted films. In reality, the combination of each of these engaging aspects and more provides this aura of odd satisfaction. Coen aficionados will absolutely enjoy the classically cinematic piece, a shrewd and well-paced drama that certainly dabbles in less unknown ground than it does commonality, but is all the better for it.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is exceptionally unexceptional. In his own words, he’s just the barber, a profession he happened to “stumble into”. Nothing glamorous, everything mundane. He doesn’t talk much either, and when he does his words often couple together in coherent wonderment about the growth of hair. Surprisingly then (or unsurprisingly) Ed’s decision to invest in a new dry-cleaning venture is the catalyst for an incredible domino effect of rotten luck, and even more terrible repercussion. Yet he is still unmoved. Not carefree as that’d be too mindfully jaunty and far from stubborn as that would indicate innate emotion. No, as his world unfolds around him Ed Crane remains an unremarkable man, in remarkable circumstances.

The down-on-your-luck bedraggled main protagonist is a Coen stalwart, and that’s entirely the case here. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane — a character named after a construction machine is banal prophecy at its finest — typifies this presence of lingering non-attraction. A non-attraction only really sold at face value though, because as the film progresses and the dominoes continue fall, Crane’s disassociation with it all is oddly humorous. Just like in A Serious Man, and even more so in their newest offering Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen’s strategically present an ailing, undesirable human who still makes you laugh. Not in a guffawing manner, but rather through chuckles supported by a bleak undertone. The characters around Ed only serve as further coals to the comedic fire. Jon Polito sweats flippantly in a hilarious turn as Ed’s potential dry cleaning business partner. Brother-in-law Frank, played by Michael Badalucco, is a motor mouth who can’t even prevent his tongue from wavering during a murder trial.

On the other side of the Coen coin, there’s an ostentatiously serious murder cover-up story playing out. In many other settings the sincerity of these dramatic proceedings would be tragic, but as the widow of the victim details how she believes aliens and the government to be responsible for her late husband’s demise (a theory book-ended by ironically eerie music) you cannot help but awkwardly laugh out of nonsensical fear. Even Ed’s total removal from everyday society is a depressing tale. As he reflectively narratives events whilst they unfold, Ed constantly refers to himself in loner terms, as if a complete disconnect prevents him from being fully incorporated into the world. Only his shadow follows him, unnerved. Perhaps this is why he decides to hatch an elaborate plan to become part of a fairly feeble business venture — solely to be involved. “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. Nobody saw me. I was the barber,” are sobering reflections from an unfortuitous gentleman, but in the peculiarly poised Cold War landscape — where everybody suspects something but nobody suspects Ed — it’s sort of inexplicably funny. This curious dichotomy, where a load of off-beat happenings congregate in an intelligently crafted manner, paves way for a hilariously strange output, one which screams proudly Coen.

James Gandolfini is purposeful, arrogant and boisterous as Big Dave, manager of a local department store where Ed’s wife works. Gandolfini purveys a bumbling kind, one without any real moral compass and whose arrogance often gets the better of him. It’s an excellent performance portraying a character who accentuates Ed’s triviality; as Big Dave recalls his (true or untrue) tales of fighting in World War II, we are informed Ed was turned away by army officials for having flat feet. Gandolfini’s “what kind of man are you?” packs a familiar punch too. Frances McDormand is Ed’s aforementioned wife Doris, someone who might come across as particularly uninspiring if not in the presence of Ed. A fresh-faced Scarlett Johansson even makes an appearance as a young piano player, and the only person who generates any significant (perhaps repentant) energy out of Ed.

Camera master Roger Deakins once again breathes an aesthetically majestic life into a film. His shots are often reined in by simplicity, but always evoke a sense of fond visual appreciation. The black and white depiction even embodies a character of its own, complementing Ed’s nonchalant attitude in one unassuming sense but then contrasting his superior normality in another — the style certainly isn’t normal these days.

The Coen brothers boast a unique filmmaking mantra, one that is beloved by many and that often succeeds. In the case of The Man Who Wasn’t There it’s another success story, as the various components — idiosyncratic dialogues, an unlucky non-hero, splendidly manipulated visuals, and magnificently crafted sets — all come together in a weirdly comical and soothing experience.