By Justin Mancini (Davis, CA, USA)


Denis Villeneuve’s latest film thrusts us into the heart of Mexican cartel country, and seeks to convey the mean streets of Juarez to desensitized modern audiences. It even puts a woman in the lead role, a feat still rare in today’s studio pictures…then makes her totally ineffective. In the film’s worldview, do-gooders are screwed, everyone is corrupt, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

And yet…I can’t dismiss the film as uninteresting or lazily assembled. An incredible amount of care has gone into this ultimately shallow exploration of drug warfare. So let’s take the good with the bad. Here are 4 reasons why this film impresses, and 4 reasons why it disappoints.

# 1. The Good
It represents a clear, uncompromising directorial vision

Say what you will about the film’s lack of profundity; you can’t dismiss it as incompetently made. In portraying the drug war for the clusterfuck it is, Villeneuve largely succeeds with painstaking set-pieces and relentless suspense. Be they intricate gunfights or sinister conversations, each scene has been choreographed within an inch of its life. Villeneuve made precisely the film he wanted to make. As misguided as I believe the film may be, I much prefer Villeneuve’s vision over a movie beset by studio interference.

#1. The Bad
It tells us nothing new about the war on drugs

Did you know the war on drugs is a futile exercise? That America may just have done some pretty terrible things in that war? Maybe this would have surprised audiences in the 90s, but in a post-9/11 world, it’s hardly an incredible truth.

Yet the film treats its subject matter as profoundly shocking, as when Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro hauls an office-size water cooler to an interrogation room. By sensationalizing America’s less-than-savory activities, and not portraying them as matter-of-fact, the film is more exploitation than muckraking truth.

#2. The Good
Roger Deakins’s photography

The superb cinematography on display here will come as no surprise to those familiar with the Coen Brothers or the most recent 007 film. Deakins is so good and so versatile at this point that he excels at both authentic grittiness and surprising visual flourishes. Whether it’s the hazy, sandy streets of Juarez, or silhouetted soldiers sinking into the ground beneath a blue-orange sky, Deakins’s visual artistry can almost make you forget the film’s narrative and character problems.

#2. The Bad
It’s utterly lacking in subtlety

Nothing gets my gut like characters stating the themes of a movie, especially when the film has already bludgeoned them home for the past two hours. So when Josh Brolin’s shady government operative restrains an angry Emily Blunt and screams at her “This is what we do!”, I was surprised he didn’t wink at the camera for the coup de grace.

When the dialogue isn’t hitting us over the head, the film’s structure betrays its transparent intentions. We’re introduced very early on to the family of a cartel member, clearly intended to mine our sympathy before something bad happens to him. Spoiler alert: it does.

#3: The Good:
The performances

While I won’t say the script allows for career defining performances, it does allow us to appreciate solid veterans doing what they do best. Josh Brolin adds just the right amount of humor to his enigmatic scheming, while Benicio Del Toro conveys so much with so little. (His imperative to Emily Blunt: “Don’t ever point a weapon at me again,” is chilling in its firm.)

Even in a limited role as FBI agent Kate Macer, Blunt finds authenticity that comes from a total commitment to her craft. She exudes both anxiety and professionalism, sometimes in the same moment. Which is why it’s disappointing to see her locked into the “naïve outsider” stereotype.

#3. The Bad
It sticks Emily Blunt in the thankless role of ineffectual moral center

No matter her experience or training, Kate must settle for being an inexperienced, compassionate woman in a world dominated by jaded, violent men. When Kate attempts to change the procedure or attempt a less violent course of action, she is immediately shot down (literally in one case, when she takes a bullet to the vest.) When she does manage to do anything, she’s promptly punished; even a brief attempt at a one night stand almost leads to lethal consequences. What’s more, the film eventually disappears from Kate’s perspective altogether, preferring Alejandro’s cold, callous badassery to Kate’s emotional turmoil.

The film plays on the trope of the starry eyed idealist in a corrupt environment, and then intentionally denies her any meaningful change in that system. But in a film so oppressive, that denial is hardly surprising. As the only major female character, she appears innocent and misguided next to her male colleagues. There’s no room for gray in this kind of characterization.

#4. The Good
The throbbing tension

The best moments in the film aren’t messages or monologues, but the impeccable settings that overwhelm our senses. Traveling with the U.S. convoy through Juarez, Villeneuve subjects us to tactile as well as visual stimuli (every bump in the road is felt as much as seen). In another gorgeously rendered set-piece, we see primarily from Kate’s viewpoint, witnessing fragmentary firefights and bloody aftermaths. Over a two hour run time; Villeneuve doesn’t let us catch a breath.

#4. The Bad
The violence grows tiresome and predictable

It’s true that the film works better in the pauses between violence, such as the sight of mangled bodies hanging from buildings in war-torn Juarez. But in terms of the violence we actually witness, you can feel Villeneuve straining to shock us as the body count increases with every scene. We hear in explicit detail how Alejandro’s family was massacred by a cartel boss, so it comes as no shock when he guns down both the boss’s wife and children. If every standoff ends the same way, where is the tension? We get it, Denis; violence begets more violence. The extremity of the violence doesn’t shock; it numbs.



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