Sicario (2015)

Sicario, Denis Villeneuve’s sweeping view of the war on drugs, focuses on the law enforcement officials crossing the border.

sicarioUSA
4*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve

Screenwriter:
Taylor Sheridan

Director of Photography:
Roger Deakins

Running time: 120 minutes

The United Status–Mexico border may appear to separate the two most populous nations in North America, but in fact, as we know, the length of the border and the rough terrain make it difficult to control, and for decades there has been a northward movement of people and drugs. In Sicario, director Denis Villeneuve does not tell the tale of those crossing the border, as this has been done often enough, but instead focuses on the moral wasteland that the government’s fight against the drug-induced violence has become.

The opening scene is intense. In Arizona, in a small town just a few miles from the border, a federal team of agents is moving in. They ram their truck into a flimsy suburban home and return the fire they receive from the wife beater–clad gentlemen inside. At first, there is no sign of the hostages they had been tipped off about. But upon closer inspection of the property, they find the walls are hollow and stuffed with dozens of corpses whose heads are all covered in plastic bags. The scene is gruesome, and most of the hardened men and women of the team retch at the sight and the smell. Moments later, a bomb goes off, and we witness at least one team member losing a limb.

One of those involved in the raid is Kate Mercer (a stunningly composed Emily Blunt), who is intent on rooting out the drug problem and agrees to work with Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a Defense Department adviser who heads up a Delta Force team to get those who are responsible for the first scene’s carnage. The team is accompanied by Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), an unflappable and enigmatic Colombian whose intentions are opaque but who brings unmistakable expertise to the operation.

There are many revelations throughout the film, as we realise time and again that the U.S. government engages in all kinds of undercover and even unlawful activities in order to reduce the general level of criminality, and they do so in a way that would make Machiavelli proud. For those who have not seen the film, it would not be too much of a spoiler to disclose that the U.S. team does not limit its activities to its own territory, and the notorious border town of Ciudad Juárez is the location of one of the film’s dramatic highlights.

In that particular scene, Villeneuve demonstrates his talent for building and maintaining tension, for keeping the audience on the edge of their seats thanks to a threat that seems to be both ever-present and covert, and for using his camera to produce images that are breathtaking yet entirely relevant.

For example, there are a few amazing fly-over shots from high up in the air that show us the congested lanes on the Bridge of the Americas, the port of entry between the United States and Mexico. The sequence in Ciudad Juárez is bookended by shots on the bridge, and at first, the U.S. team races unobstructed across the bridge in their big black Humvees. When they return, there is much more congestion, and the heavy traffic is not only an inconvenience but a security threat. At the same time, the shots from the air convey the feeling of a disembodied menace (it is not connected to a helicopter, for example) that might as well be a Predator drone – the kind that the U.S. government uses to patrol the border.

But in the background, beyond the blood and the action, there is the eerie indifference among the thousands of passengers crammed into the hundreds of cars passing the still-bleeding corpses without so much as a shocked expression. In this part of the world, even the slaying of two handfuls of people in broad daylight does not elicit the turn of a head or a soft gasp of breath. All the while, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s throbbing, menacing and absolutely riveting score pumps our blood faster and faster.

Sicario, which means “hitman” in Mexico, is a film whose overwhelming sense of dread is difficult to shake, even many days after the viewer has left the theater. While the drama is elegantly directed and flawlessly put together and the narrative is always crystal clear, the overall feeling is one of never-ending chaos, and that early scene in and around Ciudad Juárez greatly contributes to this impression.

Villeneuve’s film is scary and profound. It focuses on a small group of people representing larger forces we only get a glimpse of, but these snippets of the battle against drugs is enough to make us understand there is no easy answer, and that eventually everyone loses in this fight.

The Counselor (2013)

A drug war on the border does not produce the most original of storylines, but the raunchy film certainly includes its fair share of brutality.

counselorUSA
2.5*

Director:
Ridley Scott
Screenwriter:
Cormac McCarthy
Director of Photography:
Dariusz Wolski

Running time: 115 minutes

Novelist Cormac McCarthy is known for his sombre vision of humanity, and the two best-known films made from his work, the Academy Award–winning No Country for Old Men and the harrowing post-apocalyptic The Road, were both shrouded in a suffocating pessimism about the direction of the world.

Such pessimism is on minimal display in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, which doesn’t even have a touch of the McCarthy melancholy we would expect. Instead, the images are crisp, imbued with a stark clarity that is wholly at odds with the clumsy narrative. Although the content is far from joyful, and the film contains countless scenes of people getting killed whom we would have preferred to see alive, the overwhelming sense of doom of the other two films is almost entirely absent from this one.

The titular “Counselor”, otherwise nameless for whatever reason, is the main character. Irishman Michael Fassbender brings an indefinable and entirely appropriate accent to the role, providing him with just the right amount of enigma. He is a lawyer who lives a happy life in the border town of El Paso, Texas, and has just proposed to his girlfriend, the fragile and religious Laura, played by Penélope Cruz.

The utopia of their existence soon disappears, however, when he decides to take part in a drug operation that is high risk but even higher reward. The risk becomes real when, because of a few coincidences that stretch back all the way to his appointment by a court to defend a murderer in a Texas jail, the cartel suddenly has the Counselor in its sights, and the cartel should not be messed with.

Members of the cartel engage in an escalating torrent of violence, and their preferred method of killing someone invariably seems to involve decapitation. In the first scene between the Counselor and drug lord Reiner, an unlikely friendship that is never explained, Reiner mentions a device called the bolito, which is a motorised decapitation device that, when we inevitably see it used, produces thick blood splattering directly onto the camera in a way we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever, in a film that is not a comedy.

Scott struggles with tone, as his characters can be both funny (we need look no further than Reiner’s cold-hearted girlfriend, Malkina, having an orgasm while making love to the front windshield of his Ferrari) and ruthless, but the ups and downs are never smoothly stitched together. Reiner, one of the most important individuals in the narrative, always seems out of his depth, with much of his dialogue consisting of three words: “I don’t know.” And yet, he is supposed to be the big kahuna in the area.

The Counselor isn’t much more eloquent, and a surprising number of his lines invoke the Almighty. But God is nowhere to be found in this wasteland of a film. Not that Scott is incompetent, but we simply cannot relate to these people whose relationship with each other is vague and whose motives for acting the way they do are never examined.

In one of the opening scenes, the Counselor has flown from El Paso all the way to Amsterdam – just to buy a ring for his fiancée, mind you – where he has a long, recognisably McCarthy-like talk with the diamond dealer about the brevity of life. It is more of a monologue by the dealer (not coincidentally played by Wings of Desire’s angel, Bruno Ganz), and it would look great on the page, but in this beast of a film it feels out of place and quite silly. 

Cheetahs pop up onscreen from time to time, perhaps as a reminder that we should be mindful of those creatures that are graceful but can incite terror and inflict terrible harm to those who are not as fast or as clever. Although in some ways it resembles the cheetah, the film is also closely aligned with the jackrabbit, as it scurries hither and thither in a vain struggle for survival before the ineluctable bloodletting.

For all the commendable sensitivity Fassbender brings to his role, his character is simply too weak to even know where to start managing this situation that is only somewhat of his own making. He lacks the wisdom of those in Ciudad Juárez whose help he seeks late in the film – people who have spent their lives reflecting on the fragility of life.

The Counselor does not look or feel like the other big films that have been produced from McCarthy’s work, but that is not its only fault. Except for the mostly superfluous meditations on life and death, not dissimilar from Tommy Lee Jones’s droning in No Country for Old Men, it brings nothing new to the type of film we already know about drug-running across the border.