Drug war’s brute re­al­ity

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film Reviews -

Stephen Romei Si­cario (MA15+) Na­tional re­lease Cut Snake (MA15+) Lim­ited re­lease

De­nis Vil­leneuve’s war-on-drugs thriller Si­cario, which rolls through the bad­lands of the US-Mexico bor­der, is one of my top two films of the year to date, the other be­ing David Oel­hof­fen’s drama Far from Men.

Si­cario can be en­joyed as a heart-pound­ing ac­tion movie but a large part of its bril­liance lies is in its de­fi­ance of the ex­pec­ta­tions of that genre. Con­sider the car “chase” scene early on: it un­folds in a traf­fic jam, not one ve­hi­cle mov­ing, and it is as tense, dra­matic and ul­ti­mately ex­plo­sive as any­thing you are likely to see in a high-oc­tane block­buster fran­chise. What’s more, it’s be­liev­able. It’s a mi­nor mas­ter­piece of film­mak­ing, su­perbly shot by vet­eran English cin­e­matog­ra­pher Roger Deakins.

The film opens with a sim­i­larly mag­nif­i­cent set piece. FBI agent Kate Macer (English ac­tress Emily Blunt, about whom we should be hear­ing more come Os­car time) leads a raid on a non­de­script house in Phoenix, Ari­zona. She is a tac­ti­cal re­sponse ex­pert who has been lead­ing the bureau’s kid­nap re­sponse team for three years. So she’s hard-core — but she’s about to learn that there is hard-core and then there’s a whole other level.

The raid does not go to plan, with fa­tal con­se­quences. There are no hostages in the house but the team mem­bers are sick­ened by what they do find: dozens of bod­ies wrapped in plas­tic and sealed in the wall cav­i­ties, ap­par­ent vic­tims of a Mex­i­can drug car­tel. Cru­cially, the corpses are on US soil: the news net­works re­port an “out­rage deep in­side the Amer­i­can heart­land”.

Macer is in­vited to join an in­ter-agency task­force es­tab­lished to go af­ter a Mex­i­can drug lord. Tak­ing him down, she is told, would be “like dis­cov­er­ing a vac­cine”. Ev­ery­thing else, the des­per­ate work she does ev­ery day, is just “clean­ing up the mess”. We are told that Si­cario means as­sas­sin, and we will meet peo­ple on both sides of the bor­der who might fit the bill.

The task­force is led by the seem­ingly laid­back Matt Graver (we first see him chair­ing a se­ri­ous-look­ing meet­ing, in T-shirt and thongs). Graver (Josh Brolin, full of charm and men­ace) is a shad­owy fig­ure, prob­a­bly CIA. An even darker pres­ence is his tac­i­turn off­sider Ale­jan­dro (Beni­cio Del Toro, in his best per­for­mance since his Os­car-win­ning role in Steven Soder­bergh’s Traf­fic, another fine film about the war on drugs). Who Ale­jan­dro works for is any­one’s guess, as is his na­tion­al­ity. He’s clearly some sort of wounded bull — suf­fer­ing and dan­ger­ous. When Macer asks him about the na­ture of their mis­sion, he replies: “You are ask­ing me how a watch works. For now, just keep an eye on the time.’’

It’s a re­mark that comes crash­ing back to mind when we learn the real rea­son Macer has been brought on board.

French-Cana­dian di­rec­tor Vil­leneuve, who scored a for­eign film Os­car nom­i­na­tion in 2010 for the fam­ily drama In­cendies, does not shy away from de­pict­ing vi­o­lence, but some of the most dis­turb­ing mo­ments are ones of sug­ges­tion: Ale­jan­dro en­ter­ing an in­ter­ro­ga­tion room lug­ging the top of a wa­ter cooler; the cam­era leav­ing the pris­oner to fo­cus on the drain in the ce­ment floor.

Yet another stun­ning set piece sees the task­force mem­bers cross the bor­der and head into the law­less city of Juarez. Mu­ti­lated corpses swing from a bridge in the mid­dle of town. Cin­e­matog­ra­pher Deakins cap­tures the sharp tang of the ur­ban squalor and the dead­ness of the land­scape be­yond. Will this be the film that fi­nally lands him an Os­car? He has been nom­i­nated a dozen times with­out suc­cess, from The Shaw­shank Re­demp­tion in 1994 to last year’s Un­bro­ken. In 2007 he was nom­i­nated twice, for No Coun­try for Old Men (best film and best di­rec­tor for the Coen broth­ers) and An­drew Do­minik’s mes­meris­ing The As­sas­si­na­tion of Jesse James by the Cow­ard Robert Ford. The Os­car went to Robert El­swit for There Will be Blood.

In Juarez, and for the re­main­der of the film, Blunt bril­liantly con­veys the hor­ror of the re- al­ity her char­ac­ter finds her­self in. She is a highly trained, brave and ded­i­cated field agent, and she is in way over her head, in­tim­i­dated by the se­ri­ous, be­yond-the-law bad asses such as Graver and Ale­jan­dro and the mus­cled-up elite sol­diers un­der their com­mand. I love the fact that doesn’t change; that she doesn’t sud­denly be­come some sort of su­per­hero. “I’m not a soldier. This is not what I do,’’ she says.

Like so much of Si­cario, what hap­pens to Macer is what would hap­pen in life, not what would hap­pen in a movie. This re­al­ism grips from the start and never lets go. If any­thing, the hold tight­ens in the bru­tal fi­nal se­quences in­volv­ing the driven, mer­ci­less Ale­jan­dro, the near-ni­hilism of which some view­ers may find dif­fi­cult to ac­cept. This is not a feel­good film, but it is su­perb.

When it comes to de­fy­ing ex­pec­ta­tions, the Aus­tralian crime thriller Cut Snake more than holds its own. Set in the mid-1970s, Tony Ayres’s film, writ­ten by Blake Aysh­ford, opens with a con­ven­tional scene of a man be­ing re­leased from prison in Syd­ney. This is James “Pom­mie” Stewart (Sul­li­van Sta­ple­ton from An­i­mal King­dom), a good-look­ing tough guy. We cut to a happy ex­tended-fam­ily scene in Mel­bourne and meet Merv (Alex Rus­sell) and Paula (Jes­sica De Goux), an at­trac­tive young cou­ple en­gaged to be mar­ried. Paula’s fa­ther has helped them buy a house in a bush set­ting.

When Pom­mie turns up in Mel­bourne, first at Merv’s work­place and then on his doorstep, it looks like we are in fa­mil­iar genre ter­ri­tory, though Ayres han­dles it well. He has been in­volved in some of our best tele­vi­sion, in­clud­ing The Slap and the telemovie Saved. Here he cap­tures the 70s mood well — the loud clothes and louder mu­sic — and I like the Craw­ford Pro­duc­tions feel to the cops-and-rob­bers stuff.

Pom­mie calls Merv “young Sparra”. Clearly the two men met in prison, a se­cret Merv has con­cealed from his fi­ancee, and this old re­la­tion­ship is go­ing to jeop­ar­dise the young cou­ple’s shiny new life to­gether. And yes, that’s part of the story. Sul­li­van is mag­netic as the sort of bloke im­plied by the ti­tle: mad as a cut snake. He smiles a lot, jokes a lot, is nice to the ladies, helps with the house­work — and ev­ery fi­bre of his be­ing throbs with tyre-bit­ing ag­gres­sion.

Yet we glimpse chinks in this hy­per-macho ar­mour, such as when he’s em­bar­rassed by a drag queen at a night­club. Just how vul­ner­a­ble he is soon be­comes shock­ingly clear and we sud­denly have an ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fer­ent film, one that sur­prises and con­fronts in its ex­am­i­na­tion of un­ex­pected pas­sion and the de­struc­tive side of love. It’s not ex­actly feel­good ei­ther, but it’s well worth see­ing.

MU­TI­LATED CORPSES SWING FROM A BRIDGE IN THE TOWN

Emily Blunt, above, is bril­liantly con­vinc­ing as Kate Macer in Si­cario; Sul­li­van Sta­ple­ton and Alex Rus­sell in Cut Snake,

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