Saturday, September 19, 2015

Sicario's Heart of Darkness

I went to the Cannes film festival for the first time last May, and when I got my invitation for the screening of Sicario, I didn't think it was something that would really interest me.  A film about the Mexican drug cartels?  

Also, I had not been of fan of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, mainly because I felt that the story and characters strained credulity.  I hadn't seen any of his previous films except Enemy, which I quite liked--but I'll go for a doppelgänger film any time.

But wow.  Did Sicario teach me not to judge a film by its alleged subject matter (imagine not seeing Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker because it's about a bomb squad in Iraq!).

The film begins wound with tension and a bang that's horrifyingly stunning.  It had me from the first frame.  As the film went on, I kept thinking, man, this is really good and really tense.  I feared there was no way it could sustain this.  But boy, it did on all levels.  Taylor Sheridan's first produced screenplay (he's been an actor on Sons of Anarchy) is beautifully lean and spare.  The score by Jóhann Jóhannsson (who, my Icelandic seat mate proudly informed me, is from Iceland) is ominous, tense, throbbing (you can listen to it here).  Roger Deakins' cinematography is outstanding.  And Villeneuve proves himself completely worthy of directing the upcoming Blade Runner sequel.  (He already has another sci-fi in the can, Story of Your Life, based on a story by Ted Chiang, adapted by Eric Heisserer, starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.)

Benicio Del Toro is, as usual, rivetingly and unsettlingly superb.  But the heart and soul and moral compass of the movie is the character played by Emily Blunt, Kate Macer. (It's unfathomable to me that financiers pressured both Sheridan and later Villeneuve to change her character to a male, which the filmmakers wisely refused to do.)  We experience everything through Macer's eyes, her persona.  She's the Capt. Willard character in Apocalypse Now, sent downriver to find Kurtz.  But in this case the river is a tunnel to Mexico, and Kurtz is...well, let's just say that there's more than one Kurtz in this version of Heart of Darkness.  (Villeneuve has acknowledged that he thought about the Coppola film in making this one.)

Macer, like Willard/Marlow, is recruited for a mysterious mission by a cadre headed by an excellent Josh Brolin (in fatigues and flip flops!), but she's unclear as to why they want/need her.  She and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) are FBI; she thinks the others are CIA.  But Alejandro (Del Toro)? He simply seems meticulously (how he carefully folds and rolls his khaki sportcoat!) lethal, is all she and we initially know.

I saw the film again last night, and it was as sensationally muscular as I had remembered.  But I have to admit that this is a film that has its strongest impact on first viewing, when, like the heroine, you have no idea what is going to transpire.  It keeps you on the edge of your seat.  It's relentless in the best possible way.

Like Prisoners, Sicario is also a revenge thriller.  And it's a film about family, the loss of innocence, and the kind of experience that alters your life irrevocably.  This, dear reader and moviegoer, is what Hollywood now refers to as an elevated genre film.  It's haunting.  It's stunning.  It deserves all the awards it's going to get.

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