Thursday, November 19, 2015

La Búsqueda del Medellín por El Verdugo en Ciudad Juárez

I felt like Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve) wasn't a complete waste of time when I went to see it in the theater in 2013. That it was shot by Roger Deakins lent it some prestige, meriting it worthy of attention. I couldn't decide if it was well paced and suspenseful or just boring.

Is it me or does the first half of the year's films released suck?

Among the trailers online for Fall releases, Denis Villeneuve's slick action Mexican cartel flick with Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro looked very promising.

Okay, so Sicario (2015, Villeneuve) isn't an action flick. Although it has some intense action sequences for sure. It's a suspense procedural about drug cartel manhunts from the perspective of an US FBI agent. Sicario is a perfect film. Its precision of pacing, storytelling and cinematography is surgical, sparse, and somehow continuously driven to its singular goal, which is shrouded in ambiguity; and, only slightly less so at its conclusion.

A prologue in Chandler, AZ begins in a quiet suburb, accompanied by low, barely there electronic beats that highlight the adrenaline and anxiety quickly to be revealed as caused by a huge FBI raid on a group of Mexican cartel. The ensuing carnage uncovered is stomach-turning.

The leader of the kidnap response team that uncovered the criminal target is KATE MACER (Emily Blunt), an elegantly beautiful waif with little makeup coming off as a twenty first century Clarice Starling. Emily Blunt is our surrogate. She's who we identify with. She's important. She knows that the house is owned by Manuel Diaz.

The inciting incident is a secretive meeting that follows where MATT (Josh Brolin) arrives at the decision to hire Macer for a task force he's putting together. Macer's motivation: to get back at the people responsible for the Chandler, AZ massacre house, which also leveled at least one fatal casualty from Macer's team. Matt wears flip-flops, doesn't shave, and wears his shirt untucked and unbuttoned in the meeting even though the other bureaucrats all wear suits. Matt's cool.

This meeting ends with Matt explaining that he'll be taking Macer to get Manuel Diaz's brother Guillermo.

Next we see a home in Nogales, Sonora where a shaved head Mexican cop is awakened by his son whom we learn wants to go play soccer. This cop only appears in a few shots, each lasting only a short while. But, scenes at the cop's house serve as act breaks. This first one tells us Act I now begins.

Roger Deakins' bleached out wide-angle landscape vista shots are breathtaking location work--it's the real deal. It makes the shots from The Counselor (2013, Ridley Scott) feel like Full Metal Jacket (1987, Stanley Kubrick). And this trip to get Guillermo Diaz is the standout achievement of Sicario.

In fact, the three act structure can be divided into:

I.   Going after Guillermo Diaz
II.  Going after Manuel Diaz
III. Going after Fausto Alarcon

The trip to get Guillermo introduces the mysterious character Matt works closely with, played by Benicio Del Toro. Benicio Del Toro's performance is accomplished almost entirely without dialogue, and, as it will be revealed, this film is all about him really. His aged, wearisome raccoon-circled droopy eyes are menacing and suggestive of an undoubtedly hefty backstory. And his relaxed assurance is foreboding.

As Macer and Matt board a private jet (gorgeous aerial POV, border-establishing photography), Macer introduces herself to Benicio's character. She says hello. He asks her if she's ever been to Juárez before. Noticeably alarmed, Macer demands to know from Matt (who's got his shoes off and is taking a nap), "we're going to El Paso, right?" The already half asleep Matt answers, with his eyes still shut, mumbling, something like yeah okay mmm hmmm. God this movie makes me laugh in some of the most unexpected moments. Same scene Macer asks Benicio character, "Is there anything I need to know?" the explanation she gets from him is:

"You're asking me how a watch works. For now let's just keep an eye on the time."

Then there's a briefing with a cadre of US Marshals, Army, military of who knows what class, all assembled for this (illegal, unsanctioned) trip to Juárez. After it's dismissed, Macer, still prying for answers, confronts Benicio character--she gets: "Nothing will ever make sense to your American ears. And you will question everything we do. But in the end it'll all make sense." Okay, what? The level of suspense had me.

The Juárez trip to get Guillermo culminates with 5 blacked out SUVs and the horrors that are found there. Mutilated bodies hang from bridges. Gunshots from automatic rifles echo in the vicinity. And then a harbinger parallel to them, a police cruiser, identified as a spotter car can be seen as they're driving on their way out of town, between city blocks. Macer's POV: sees it once, twice, then disappears. As Matt's team's intel predicted, on the way back, at the border is where there'd be an attack, if an attack was to happen. And that nail-biting imminent danger crescendo is ruptured with a Peckinpah shootout (later I'll argue that Sicario is actually a Western).

The team take their prisoner Guillermo back to a barracks somewhere. A Mexican who works for some unspecified agency here first addresses Benicio character as "EL MEDELLÍN." Again keeping with the economy of what is and isn't scene, the interrogation between El Medellín and Guillermo is composed of: El Medellín walking in with a five gallon water bottle (full), then up to the seated Guillermo, sticking his crotch in the dude's face, and a camera that tracks down to the floor drain while gasps and groans of disgust are heard.

Act II begins. Back to the Nogales house. Dad's not there. Mom and the son eat breakfast.

Macer's motive in this act is now to help Matt get Guillermo's brother Manuel Diaz called back to Juárez, which as explained to her would be like finding a vaccine for cancer, if successful, because they're after Manuel's boss.

There's a midpoint scene where a cop Macer meets in a bar takes her back to his place, but she realizes he's actually in cahoots with the cartels. Things get awkward. He tries to kill her, but El Medellín is there to save her life. I'll come back to this later.

Act III. Nogales house. Dad and son have breakfast.

Matt's gonna follow Manuel Diaz from AZ back to Sonora, which was exactly his plan all along. Matt reveals his ulterior motive as using Macer the whole time because the CIA can't operate within US borders without a government agency attached. Defeated, helpless Macer now just goes along out of curiosity.

So after Matt's team follows Manuel through an underground tunnel into Sonora, El Medellín breaks off, and Macer follows him. He's found the shaved head cop, and has a gun on him. The cop addresses him as "El Medellín." Macer pulls a gun and tells El Medellín to release the man, but he instantly shoots her. He tells her, "Don't ever point a weapon at me again. Catch your breath and get back out of here."

Disgusted Macer leaves back through the tunnel then punches Matt in the face, whom in turn knocks her down and physically dominates her. There's nothing she can do. So, do I have a problem with the gender politics here? Three times Macer's pinned helpless to the ground by a guy and each time there's nothing she can do. I argue no, because as I said I identify with her. I feel like these are the guys you don't fuck with and that her moral obligations are eventually defeated, which I find a truthful element of this drama.

Sicario's third act climax follows El Medellín as he gets his target, El Verdugo (The Executioner), Fausto Alarcon. I argue that this is a Western in disguise because El Medellín is like the Man with No Name whose allegiance is to no one, which renders the politics of drug trafficking moot. El Medellín's motive is to get revenge after what happened to his wife and daughter. And he plays both sides like the ronin from Yojimbo (1961, Akira Kurosawa) for his own ends.

The resolution epilogue begins with a shot of Macer seen through a gauze black curtain in her dark apartment. Completely transformed by what she knows now that she didn't know then. And El Medellín making her sign the statement shows that he's keeping up his end of the deal for Matt, and no one's worried about what the future holds for him. And in fitting last words he leaves Macer with: "You will not survive here. You're not a wolf and this is a land of wolfs now."

And a coda in Nogales: the boy plays soccer and his mom watches. Gunfire somewhere nearby is heard. People pause, but this doesn't entirely stop them from getting back to their lives. So it seems like this border drug cartel problem is something that cannot be ignored. Or can it? These ambiguities are another strength of Sicario.

Deakins' work as cinematographer is always minimal, just what's needed to tell us what's important and where we are. Most of the locations filmed are shabby, unadorned, domestic middle class type feel to them. But his exteriors are striking, if not bleached out bright day shots, sunsets and sunrises in skies that recall early Western movies.


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