By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: Sicario

Trust in Denis Villeneuve. Announced earlier that he would be The One to direct a Blade Runner sequel, and with a stellar filmography that just keeps getting better and better, his latest film Sicario just absolutely set fire to this sleepy Competition, more or less napping after the duds post-Carol. It’s unlikely this is a Palme winner—thrillers like these aren’t typical recipients—but it’s nevertheless a top title here at Cannes, and one to watch over the year for a number of categories (that is, in addition to a possible acting or directing award on Sunday).

sicario

Sicario is a drug war chess game, and in the patriarchal underworld that is cartel hell the women are pawns and the men simply aren’t playing by the rules. Trying her best to keep her head above water in a violent Mexican desert that has none, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate is utterly useless in the face of immorality on both sides of the law. Her superiors (Josh Brolin, a CIA honcho, and Benicio Del Toro, a well-dressed hitman) are enacting a shadow war in the bloody wasteland of cartel territory, taking out targets with weapons-free rules of engagement and a morbid pragmatism to their conflict.

Capturing all of this is the untouchable Roger Deakins, who keeps his cool where other films refused to (look at the earthquake-shake cinematography of Zero Dark Thirty, a film already very similar to this one, and see the difference in quality a steady camera can make). Night vision warfare, drone footage, modern run-and-gun combat, meeting room debriefs—all of it is here realized with an artistic touch, and Villeneuve’s signature unpretentious direction blocks the carnage of the crepuscular with a furious yet calm intensity. Exposition here is handled well and believably, the slight twists thrown into the mix aren’t obvious or melodramatic, and there’s a refreshing sense of detachment when we witness dialogue from further away—letting the reality and gravity of the environment sink in—than the easy close-ups of other productions that come with their guns cocked and their fingers on dramatic pressure points, eager to use their outdoor voices inside.

There isn’t really a beginning or an end to this film, because when it comes to dismantling illegal and horrific organizations, beheading one snake only results in the rising of another. So Blunt’s character is kind of floundering for a solid two hours, in essence doing very little, but it’s thematically appropriate.In a critical scene, Del Toro barks to her: “You are not a wolf, and this is the land of the wolves now,” and worse than death are threats on the lives and safety of daughters or wives. Boys and men are wasted in seconds, and it’s this male-dominated aggressive attrition that allows Blunt’s character to embody all of the feelings of helplessness and futility society accepts in the sidelines of the drug war. We see a pick-up soccer game briefly interrupted by the crack-crack-crack of an automatic weapon somewhere in the distance, and it’s the equivalent to the basic shrug you and I do in our North American metropolises when an ambulance or police cruiser wails by. Because that’s just how it is, and that’s how it will be. Or so the film concludes.

 

 

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“We’ve talked about this before in the past, my obsession with the Shakespearean histories having the ideal combination of the sweet and the sour. In ‘Henry IV, Part II’ which we’ve discussed before, in the end of that story it’s very complex and haunting because Prince Hal becomes Henry the King, and he has transcended his hoodlum days and at the ceremony is Falstaff, his good friend with whom he has really fucked around and been a loser with, and Falstaff comes up to him and says, ‘Now that you’re king we can really party,’ and the king famously says, ‘I know thee not, old man.’ It becomes Henry IV’s anointment and Falstaff’s catastrophe. That’s life. I have experienced very little unfettered triumph. There are moments, such as when my children are born, but even that comes with new fears and anxieties. In a sense the better you can communicate that life is both at once, the more powerful over time something becomes. One strives for something where the threads are there because it lasts in way that is very palpable. The idea of a tragedy is powerful in literature and theater, but in cinema it doesn’t work, certainly not commercially, and less so critically. Why is that? I think it has to do with how movies are so close to us.”
~ James Gray

 

“Hollywood executives can rattle off the rules for getting a movie approved by Chinese censors: no sex (too unseemly); no ghosts (too spiritual). Among 10 prohibited plot elements are “disrupts the social order” and “jeopardizes social morality.” Time travel is frowned upon because of its premise that individuals can change history. U.S. filmmakers sometimes anticipate Chinese censors and alter movies before their release. The Oscar-winning alien-invasion drama “Arrival” was edited to make a Chinese general appear less antagonistic before the film’s debut in China this year. For “Passengers,” the space adventure starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, a scene showing Mr. Pratt’s bare backside was removed, and a scene of Mr. Pratt chatting in Mandarin with a robot bartender was added.”
~ “Hollywood’s New Script”