Drug war’s brute reality
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,