Sicario (2015)

I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.

It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.

Sicario film poster CREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Taylor Sheridan; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015.

Enemy (2013)

I forget sometimes how weird and creepy Canadian films can be. There was a period in the 90s, on the back of Atom Egoyan’s festival successes, when a bunch of them made it to cinemas, but aside from David Cronenberg’s singular oeuvre, there have since then been only occasional examples that have made it through — most recently for me, 2012’s Upside Down. This film, too, is written by a Spaniard (based on a Portuguese novel), but thankfully it’s far better, while still retaining that brittle sense of cabin fever that so many Canadian films inspire, as if created in reaction to the blandly reassuring mainstream cinema from over the border (there’s a similar quality to New Zealand cinema, too, sometimes, which is where I grew up).

The central conceit, like last year’s The Double, concerns a person who meets their doppelgänger (both here played by a bearded Jake Gyllenhaal), but where that film (disappointingly for me) toyed with black comedy, Enemy is far more insidious. The film wastes no time in plunging us into a strange dreamlike world of alienation and dread dominated by an unsettling spider metaphor, so after those initial sequences have passed, there remains something a bit existentially bleak about our hero Adam’s life as a Toronto university lecturer delivering lectures about fascism and control to his students.

The introduction of his double Anthony, an actor, allows for a bit of back-and-forth between them, but aside from one dust-up, this is mainly a sort of psychic transference, as they begin to covet one another’s partner (Sarah Gadon and Mélanie Laurent, also superficially similar in appearance), while each starts to lose control and the two identities become less clearly differentiated. The film toys at a formal level with the doubling theme, repeating scenes, and looping back on itself a little, but always presents itself with a cold aloofness signalled by its yellowish colour filters and series of bleak, modern locations. The spider metaphor continues to reappear through the film, and results in an uncanny final scene, without which the film might have passed from my mind quicker, but its very opacity and inscrutability (as well as the suddenness with which it takes place and then ends) makes it something of an unexploded mine within one’s mind, and so the film sticks with me a week later, as I continue to ponder what it all means.

Enemy film posterCREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Javier Gullón (based on the novel O Homem Duplicado by José Saramago); Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc; Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Mélanie Laurent; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Prince Charles Cinema, London, Saturday 10 January 2015.