Tag Archives: Denis Villeneuve

Drugs ‘R’ Us

Tense, thought-provoking ‘Sicario’ is gripping, gut-punch thriller

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Sicario

Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin & Benicio Del Toro

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

R

A gauzy curtain wafts in the breeze early in Sicario, a gripping, gut-punch thriller about America’s “war on drugs” along our southern border.

The swath of fabric is a membrane-thin divider, its shape is constantly shifting, offering little protection from what’s on the other side, and you can’t really see clearly through it—great metaphors for everything that happens in French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s visceral, thought-provoking saga about an idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who joins a task force to track down a brutal Mexican drug lord.

Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benecio Del Toro are members of a covert task force tracking a brutal Mexican drug czar in ‘Sicario.’

After informing us in the opening that its title is a Mexican word for “hit man,” taken from a term for zealots in ancient Jerusalem who hunted and killed Romans that invaded their homeland, Sicario starts with a bang—literally. An armored vehicle explodes through a brick wall, and things don’t soften up for the next two hours.

After Blunt’s agent Macer leads a raid on a suburban home just outside of Phoenix that turns out to be a house of horrors connected to a Mexican drug kingpin, she’s all aboard to help a governmental black-ops cowboy (Josh Brolin) and his even shadier partner, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), shut him down.

There’s more to the mission than that, as Macer—and we—find out. Like Blunt’s assignment, and the war on drugs itself, nothing in Sicario moves in a clean, straight line, nothing is really as it appears to be, and no one can really be trusted—or can they?

Director Villeneuve likes working taut, tough and raw; his previous films include the brutal revenge thriller Prisoners (2013), with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and the Oscar-nominated mystery drama Incendies (2010). Here he steers his outstanding cast through a murky maze of escalating tension, ratcheting suspense and ghastly acts of violence. Quickly, Macer’s moral compass starts to spin out of control; she can’t sort good guys from bad, tell right from wrong, or even keep track of which side of which line she’s on.

Benecio Del Toro

Blunt is phenomenal, charging through the movie as the audience surrogate, making us feel every nuance of Macer’s journey from determination to disillusion. In a performance that seethes with mystery and menace, Del Toro speaks volumes with simmering silences—and can inflict pain with only his finger. As the gum-smacking, flip-flop-wearing special operative, Brolin may not always play by the rules, but he sure knows how to “stir the pot that causes criminals to react.”

Sicario has an all-star team behind the scenes, too. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins gives everything his meticulous master’s touch, and a haunting soundtrack by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson pumps, prods and pushes the drama along like a throbbing electronic heartbeat. In a movie where almost everything stands out, several scenes stand out more, including a freeway traffic jam that erupts in a lethal shootout, and a gripping “night-vision” blackout raid on a desolate desert tunnel used by the cartel. It’s terrific, first-class filmmaking.

How far is too far to go to fight a war that may never be won? Sicario doesn’t have an easy answer, but it sure makes you think hard about the question.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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‘Prisoners’ Pounds Its Message(s) Home

How far is too far when the law doesn’t go far enough?

PRISONERS

Prisoners

Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal & Paul Dano

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

R, 153 min.

Released Sept. 20, 2013

Plunged into every parent’s worst nightmare, a desperate father (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands when his young daughter and her friend disappear and the local police department can’t get answers out of the man he’s convinced abducted them.

With no evidence to hold the developmentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was driving the rattrap minivan seen near the girls just before they vanished, the cops have to let him go. That’s when Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, abducts him, secretly holds him prisoner in an abandoned building, and begins a prolonged attempt to beat the truth out of him.

PRISONERSHow far is too far to go, Prisoners asks, when the law doesn’t go far enough?

That’s not the only question the movie raises, in its brutally direct way, as it plows through a minefield of raw nerves, shattered emotions, shifting moral boundaries and unnerving religious overtones. Most of those questions don’t have easy answers.

What are we to think, for instance, when Dover fortifies himself with the Lord’s Prayer before another grueling session subjecting his captive, who has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, to almost unthinkable abuse? Or when Dover’s neighbors Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), whose young daughter was also taken, justify their complicity to his plan? “We won’t help him,” Nancy reasons, “but we won’t stop him, either.”PRISONERS

And feel free to overlay any number of social issues, current events, theological debates or other entry points for discussion onto Dover’s declaration that his prisoner is “not a person anymore,” and that “we have to hurt him until he talks.”

Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), seemingly the only cop on the case in the entire (unnamed) Pennsylvania town, tirelessly tracks down clues that always seem to leave him frustratingly short of a breakthrough. Unable to cope, Dover’s wife (Maria Bello) retreats into a prescription-induced haze.

Melissa Leo plays Alex’s aunt, who raised him after his parents died, and David Dastmalchian is chilling as another suspect with a peculiar interest in children’s clothes…and other creepy things.

“Prisoners” has a strong cast with seven Oscar nominations and two Academy Award trophies among them. The movie’s palette of bleak winter landscapes also packs a visceral punch, thanks to ten-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s worked on five Coen Brothers movies and the sumptuous-looking James Bond adventure Skyfall.

But strip away its impressive Hollywood pedigree and it basically boils down to basic B-movie stock, shock and schlock. If you’ve seen anything like it, you’ve probably seen a lot of things like it.

PRISONERSNote the “s” in the title. By the time Prisoners ends after a marathon 153 minutes, it’s obvious it wants to leave you thinking about how you’ve encountered more than one prisoner, in more ways than one. But you’ll also be thinking about how it’s at least half an hour too long, how much of a grim ordeal the whole affair turned out to be, and how director Denis Villeneuve threw in way too much of just about everything, including snakes, some mumbo-jumbo about a “war against God,” and all those mazes, mazes and more mazes that all lead nowhere.

Fans of forensic-investigation and crime-procedural TV shows like CSI might enjoy the twisty-turn-y trip down the zig-zaggy rabbit hole to the end. But as the credits rolled after the final scene set in the darkness of night, in the winter cold, with a frosting of snow on hard, frozen ground, I was glad to “escape” to somewhere brighter, somewhere warmer, and somewhere I hadn’t just seen Paul Dano’s face repeatedly bludgeoned into the consistency of raw deer meat.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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