Opening sequences aren’t everything. But here, at 8:30 in the morning, they count for a lot. Sometimes you see one and you know what the movie is and what it’s going to do. Maybe it will work for you. Maybe not. I took one look at Emily Blunt, strapped into heavy military gear, in the sequence that kicks off Sicario and thought, Oh no. Her character is an FBI agent being driven to a drug raid on a nice house on a nice block in Phoenix. She looks apprehensive — and you can’t tell whether it’s the character or the performer. Either way, my Spidey-sense tingled. The costume meant Blunt was going to have to do another American accent. And the ambivalence on her face looked like something a bad movie would use against her. I just knew that she would be made to suffer for being unsure.
The movie, which Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners) directed from a script by Taylor Sheridan, goes the extra mile to run her over. Blunt’s character, Kate Macy, heads a kidnap response unit, and her good work has won the admiration of a gentleman (played by a slouchy, swaggering, be-flip-flopped Josh Brolin — so, really, a dude) who says he’s doing drug-war work for the Defense Department and would like Kate to accompany his team for a job in El Paso. She agrees because joining his team means chasing the men behind the explosive opening scene.
Into his sidecar she goes, and the farther it takes her the more confused she looks. When El Paso turns out to be Juarez, Blunt is required to say things like, “What the fuck are we doing?” She’s roundly beaten, assaulted, shot, and subjected to much worse — always in the service of what, in this film, is naive righteousness. Some people might see Blunt in that opening sequence and think of Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent from Zero Dark Thirty, or Rita Vrataski, Blunt’s own battle-weary badass from Edge of Tomorrow. But all Kate’s skepticism does is aggravate the boys’ nerves. Her intelligence is made to look like incompetence. The putative villain here is a drug czar, but it actually might be Kate with her by-the-book morality. Doesn’t she know? These dudes don’t read! They’re playing by illegal but more effective rules.
Villeneuve works here in a flamboyantly muscular style. Sicario is as much a gym selfie as a movie. Every shootout, raid, and detonated bomb is a dumbbell thrown to the floor in amped-up fatigue. His style demands the Michael Manns and Kathryn Bigelows of the world take notice. And they should. He’s a real director, one who can overwhelm an undercooked yet overwritten story with brute style and just enough elegance. The quiet tone and atmosphere of Enemy, from 2013, are the least like those of his other movies, and even Enemy, with Jake Gyllenhaal playing a professor fascinated by his doppelgänger, got tired of building its mystery. But each of Villeneuve’s films is worth watching, especially this one. Roger Deakins’s many staggering helicopter vistas of Mexico and the American Southwest are like Robert Smithson beating Google Earth in a pose-down.
There’s a case to be made that this overblown, one-dimensional movie is about sexism within the government’s elite defense and law-enforcement agencies. The filmmakers tried to assert as much in a round of post-screening interviews and press conferences. But no one involved with Sicario, which refers to a Latin American term for assassin, is interested in unpacking that argument — or in exploring life in Juarez, either. The cutaways to Mexico focusing on a cop and his son are just trying trying to outdo Alejandro González Iñárritu. It’s easier to brutalize, humiliate, and exploit these characters. With Blunt, the line between representing institutional sexism and the movie’s own misogyny is nonexistent.
Benicio Del Toro plays the movie’s best character, a taciturn former Juarez prosecutor who is now a relentless operative working with Brolin. Del Toro is hypnotically insinuating, his tired face a mask for heartlessness. His character uses street intelligence and the film’s sharpest dialogue to embarrass Kate with counter-moralization. Most of the men have good lines. At a crucial point, Blunt just says to Brolin, “I’m gonna tell.” The movie’s insultingly presented assertion might be that the means required to win the drug war are well past Kate’s rectitude, and that you need more than two eyes to know that. You need a pair of balls.
Now is probably the time to talk about this year’s jury, since Sicario presents juicy conflicts of interest. The copresidents are Joel and Ethan Coen, who made many movies shot by Sicario’s director of photography, Deakins. Gyllenhaal and Guillermo Del Toro are also on the jury. Not only was Gyllenhaal in Villeneuve’s Enemy, but he was the best thing about Prisoners, too. And … Guillermo and Benicio Del Toro have the same last name! What on earth will they do about this movie? In all likelihood, they’ll save themselves the grief and ignore it. The rest of the jury includes England’s Sienna Miller, whose American stock has never been higher; the French star Sophie Marceau; the living Modigliani portrait and Spaniard Rossy de Palma; the Malian singer and songwriter Rokia Traoré; and the best filmmaker to come out of both Quebec and the closet in decades, Xavier Dolan, 26 years old and a winner last year.
One hesitates to even speculate about possible cliques and alliances, but I’d like to think, for instance, that de Palma, at least in some tiny way, helped make Dolan’s presence possible. Still, this feels like one of the most random instant families that the festival has produced. Who knows what they’ll get up to? At the current rate, awarding Sicario something might be unavoidable. At the festival’s halfway point, the offerings in the competition have been lackluster.
Finally, Tuesday brought if not the festival’s first masterpiece then certainly one of the best competition films so far: Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart. I’m going to see it again on Wednesday, mostly out of enthusiasm. The applause was strong, but in the lobby afterward, Jia’s usual champions seemed mixed. The film, to me, feels like another breakthrough by a director who has never stopped pushing either himself or his idea of what a Chinese movie can do and be. This one begins as a stupid romantic comedy but ends with an emotional depth that rivals the Mariana Trench. I don’t know where the Coens’ soft spots are, but I’m hoping this movie finds its way there.
Otherwise, many of the riskiest, most eye-catching movies so far have been a long way from the main competition, in the Quinzaine (or the Directors’ Fortnight in English) and Critics’ Week, which is where, this morning, I saw Mediterranea. Loosely, it’s a work of heightened realism telling the story of African migrants in Italy. Specifically, it looks at migrant life from the perspectives of Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), two friends from Burkina Faso who arrive by boat at the Calabrian city of Rosarno and are routed into jobs at an orange grove. The Italian residents crack down violently on the migrants. The migrants strike back.
Films like this are a festival constant: Well-meaning directors want to shine a light on a world problem. But with this kind of realism, sometimes holding the light is more important than writing developed characters or casting camera-ready actors to play them. The movies can be little more than their stance, as if their muted duty of realism excuses their absence of life. Jonas Carpignano takes a detour from piety. He’s a wiry, dreadlocked, 31-year-old American who lives in New York and Rome, and is making his feature-directing debut. His father is Italian, his mother is African American, and he avoids the zombification of realist film protagonists. Sy and, especially, Seihorn contribute personality and pensiveness to their work. They’re not just objects of humanity and inhumanity but actual human beings.
The riots in the film appear to be based on an uprising that rocked Rosarno in 2010. But in having Ayiva participate as an instigator stirs echoes of recent American protests and, eerily, of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Mediterranea is not the first film that holds a mirror up to Italy’s xenophobia. Emanuele Crialese’s gorgeous melodrama Terraferma, from 2011, is among the best to date. Carpignano’s movie isn’t as staggering or as beautiful as that one. The close-ups are too close and the handheld camerawork creates a lot of illegible images. But he already has enough power and conviction to get near. The film is considered and narratively clear, gradually making its way toward tragedy and socioeconomic irony.
One night over dinner, the matriarch of the orange grove family asks Ayiva how he’s able to live under these circumstances (no papers, no stable home, no job security, with a family a continent away). Her son, his boss, tells her to knock it off: Let’s be positive, he insists. But the movie understands that that kind of false positivity is what, in many societies, has kept things negative for so long.