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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“You know, I was never a critic. I never considered myself as a film critic. I started doing short films, writing screenplays and then for awhile, for a few years I wrote some film theory, including some film criticism because I had to, but I was never… I never had the desire to be a film critic. I never envisioned myself as a film critic, but I did that at a period of my life when I thought I kind of needed to understand things about cinema, understand things about film theory, understand the world map of cinema, and writing about movies gave me that, and also the opportunity to meet filmmakers I admired.

“To me, it was the best possible film school. The way it changed my perspective I suppose is that I believe in this connection between theory and practice. I think that you also make movies with ideas and you need to have ideas about filmmaking to achieve whatever you’re trying to achieve through your movies, but then I started making features in 1986 — a while ago — and I left all that behind.

“For the last three decades I’ve been making movies, I’ve been living, I’ve been observing the world. You become a different person, so basically my perspective on the world in general is very different and I hope that with every movie I make a step forward. I kind of hope I’m a better person, and hopefully a better filmmaker and hopefully try to… It’s very hard for me to go back to a different time when I would have different values in my relationship to filmmaking. I had a stiffer notion of cinema.”
~ Olivier Assayas

A Spirited Exchange

“In some ways Christopher Nolan has become our Stanley Kubrick,” reads the first sentence of David Bordwell’s latest blog post–none of which I want or intend to read after that desperate opening sentence. If he’d written “my” or “some people’s” instead of “our”, I might have read further. Instead, I can only surmise that in some ways David Bordwell may have become our Lars von Trier.”
~ Jonathan Rosenbaum On Facebook

“Jonathan has written a despicable thing in comparing me to Trump. He’s free to read or not read what I write, and even to judge arguments without reading them. It’s not what you’d expect from a sensible critic, but it’s what Jonathan has chosen to do, for reasons of a private nature he has confided to me in an email What I request from him is an apology for comparing my ideas to Trump’s.”
~ David Bordwell Replies

“Yes, I do apologize, sincerely, for such a ridiculous and quite unwarranted comparison. The private nature of my grievance with David probably fueled my post, but it didn’t dictate it, even though I’m willing to concede that I overreacted. Part of what spurred me to post something in the first place is actually related to a positive development in David’s work–an improvement in his prose style ever since he wrote (and wrote very well) about such elegant prose stylists as James Agee and Manny Farber. But this also brought a journalistic edge to his prose, including a dramatic flair for journalistic ‘hooks’ and attention-grabbers, that is part of what I was responding to. Although I realize now that David justifies his opening sentence with what follows, and far less egregiously than I implied he might have, I was responding to the drum roll of that opening sentence as a provocation, which it certainly was and is.”
~ Jonathan Rosenbaum Replies