This is not necessarily a unique look at issues along the southern border, but it is by far one of the most intense films to deal with the complicated relationships fueling the drug war. The gas pedal is kept at least half-way to the floor throughout the entire two-hour runtime. The extended action scenes then kick it up to the red line in a way that few films achieve successfully. A near-perfect coupling of direction, acting, camera work, and musical score makes this a must-see movie of this year.
In the lawless border area stretching between the U.S. and Mexico, an idealistic FBI agent [Emily Blunt] is enlisted by an elite government task force official [Josh Brolin] to aid in the escalating war against drugs. Led by an enigmatic consultant with a questionable past [Benicio Del Toro], the team sets out on a clandestine journey forcing Kate to question everything that she believes in order to survive. (Synopsis by Lionsgate)
All three leads are at the top of their game here. This is a difficult script to navigate successfully, with touches of humor mixed into a dark, meditative political drama and intense action sequences thrown in. That is a lot to ask of any actor, much less three. At no point do any of the leads stumble in their portrayal of their character in the moment we are viewing them. This is award-winning work on display.
There is a slow rumble that begins to build from the soundtrack long before the action reaches its pinnacle, creating an unnerving sense of being slightly out of control that hooks the audience early and often. Adding to the unease is the deliberate misdirection over the intentions of Brolin and Del Toro’s characters. At a symbolic level, this is a not-so-subtle nod to the mix of politics and complicated forces that have characterized the U.S. War on Drugs. It isn’t as clever as director Denis Villeneuve wants it to be, especially when the characters outright vocalize the symbolism. Yet the rest of the film is so tightly choreographed it isn’t much of a distraction.
At a basic level, this is a film trying to be too smart. There are shades of “Syriana” here, but it never quite reaches the level of discourse on the issue. Instead we get treated to more violence and throw-away lines about how the border war is a gray area for both sides. No part of this discourse on the questionable ethics of the war on drugs is particularly insightful. While the focus on the film is heavy on the action and violence, these outlier points of political symbolism lose their relevance when they aren’t addressed in an equally important way.
This is not a film for the faint of heart. The violence is extreme and often comes during emotionally visceral parts of the film. This is not a film about good people, no matter how much they want to believe they are. They are people who are doing trying to do their job no matter how obfuscating the mission becomes. The mix of obscure intentions and extreme violence draws you in and keeps you pinned down until the muddied conclusion. One of the best films of the year. Don’t miss it.
THREE AND A HALF out of four stars.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Runtime 2 hr.
Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.