Directed by: Denis Villeneuve. The last time I saw good old Denis Villeneuve, Canada’s top directorial export at the moment, I thought that he had finally “crossed over” into mainstream Hollywood, when he made Prisoners, a seedy, sophisticated suspense thriller with A-list stars like Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman and Melissa Leo. If I recall, that movie didn’t do all that well, and the next one, Enemy, didn’t seem to cross my radar that much either, even though it had Jake Gylly in it (twice!), and it seemed to be eclipsed by Jake’s other big film that year, Nightcrawler. All this is to say, I was pleasantly surprised to see Denis Villeneuve’s name when I saw the trailer for this film. He’s already established his own kind of brand of character drama, where the characters themselves are all believable and identifiable and expressive in a really mature way, but the overall film is kind of floating on this affectless sheen, like a duck on a pond. I was excited to see how Denis would approach a film like this, a Cartel-gangster-cop movie with top-notch Hollywood talent and which, all other things being equal, they could have easily picked Antoine Fuqua or Michael Bay or somebody to direct. Although, while I’m onto Michaels, there is something kind of Michael Mann about the way Denis treated this, in the aforementioned ambiguous affect combined with a stunningly beautiful visual approach (aided in no small part by the hands of the great Roger Deakins). Overall, it’s a very successful film, a film that I enjoyed and that I wanted to see again immediately after it was over, but I couldn’t tell if it was because the film was so well done, or if it was because there’s actually something drastically wrong with the film. And while I’m barking up that tree, this film reminded me a lot of The Counselor, and not just for obvious reasons. That film also left me with this sense of something left unsettled, of something really out of joint, that nothing is okay and nothing ever will be okay. That film also left me feeling that there was some piece, some functional, utilitarian problem with the film itself, over and above the feeling of dread that the subject matter left in me. And I suspect that here too.
The film starts with Emily Blunt and her journey from the outskirts of this horrible drug war, cleaning up the messes but feeling powerless to actually contribute to a solution, trying to penetrate an obtuse, almost Kafkaesque edifice of law enforcement, whose representatives are the inscrutably outgoing and jokey Josh Brolin (the sandal-wearing goofball) and the inscrutably mute and stoic Benicio Del Toro (the mystery man). And she goes down the rabbit hole and becomes morally compromised, etc, only for the side story, the revelation of Benicio’s true identity and his personal story of revenge, kind of takes over and provides the film with its structural ending point, and what passes for the film’s catharsis. And this is where this film is really interesting, in the fact that the main theme, families in danger, isn’t really represented or advanced by the ostensible protagonist, Emily Blunt. She has a whole other arc, and we’re happy to follow her on it, but then the film kind of just loses her, leaves her, and goes over to the Mexican beat cop/father who we’ve been seeing in detached vignettes, understanding his position as a family man, but who we now see is also a person in a tough circumstance, using his uniform to run drugs for the Cartel, doing what he has to do to survive and provide for this family in this fucked up situation. And it makes it all the more heartbreaking when we see him, that we know that the film has to dispense with him as a momentary afterthought—Benicio didn’t see what we saw (the family, etc) and if he did, he probably wouldn’t hesitate to shoot the cop as he does. He’s on a single-minded mission to infiltrate the top Cartel boss’s home, to enact revenge for his wife’s murder (she was dropped into a vat of acid!), and we know that nothing will stop him. And this film’s morals are so mature and uncompromising that when he gets there, he definitely does what he thinks he has to do, but it isn’t anything we can feel good about, and it sure as hell isn’t a resolution to the problem of the drug war, but it’s a resolution to his character. Now that I reflect on it, I’m not sure that this split in the focus of the narrative is a problem per se, but I can see how it would throw people off. That being said, it’s a really good film with some great moments, it makes you want to see it a second time, and it might even be, dare I say, a great film?