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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“The sad and painful truth is that pretty much everyone in this town knew who Harvey was. I have had long talks with my most liberal friends. Did we know he was a rapist? We didn’t. But did we know that for decades he has been offering actresses big careers in exchange for sexual favors? Yes, we did — and make no mistake, that is its own kind of rape. And did we all — or did any of us — refuse to do business with him on moral grounds? No. We ALL STAYED IN BUSINESS WITH HIM. I have never done business with Harvey but I can tell you with certainty that I would have — because I was recently approached by a film festival he sponsors. They asked me to submit my short film for their consideration and I did it without thinking twice. I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist and a vocal one at that. So why didn’t I think twice? Because this entire town is built on the ugly principals that Harvey takes to an horrific extreme. If I didn’t work with people whose behavior I find reprehensible, I wouldn’t have a career.”
~ Showrunner Krista Vernoff

From AMPAS president John Bailey:

Dear Fellow Academy Members,

Danish director Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is not only one of the visual landmarks of the silent era, but is a deeply disturbing portrait of a young woman’s persecution in the face of the male judges and priests of the ruling order. The actress Maria Falconetti gave one of the most profoundly affecting performances in the history of cinema as the Maid of Orleans.

Since the decision of the Academy’s Board of Governors on Saturday October 14 to expel producer Harvey Weinstein from its membership, I have been haunted not only by the recurring image of Falconetti and the sad arc of her career (dying in Argentina in 1946, reputedly from a crash diet) but of Joan’s refusal to submit to an auto de fe recantation of her beliefs.

Recent public testimonies by some of filmdom’s most recognized women regarding sexual intimidation, predation, and physical force is, clearly, a turning point in the film industry—and hopefully in our country, where what happens in the world of movies becomes a marker of societal Zeitgeist. Their decision to stand up against a powerful, abusive male not only parallels the cinema courage of Falconetti’s Joan but gives all women courage to speak up.

After Saturday’s Board of Governors meeting, the Academy issued a passionately worded statement, expressing not only our concern about harassment in the film industry, but our intention to be a strong voice in changing the culture of sexual exploitation in the movie business, already common well before the founding of the Academy 90 years ago. It is up to all of us Academy members to more clearly define for ourselves the parameters of proper conduct, of sexual equality, and respect for our fellow artists throughout our industry. The Academy cannot, and will not, be an inquisitorial court, but we can be part of a larger initiative to define standards of behavior, and to support the vulnerable women and men who may be at personal and career risk because of violations of ethical standards by their peers.

Yours,
John