Fantastic Fest 2016: Day One

The latest from Denis Villeneuve and Chan-Wook Park, and more

Day one brings us the latest films from Denis Villenueve and Chan-Wook Park, and more!

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2016: Day One”

Sicario

Sicario isn’t just a crime drama. It’s a meditation on how to preserve morality in an environment where morality doesn’t exist.

United States. Directed by Denis Villenueve, 2015. Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Jon Bernthal, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya. 121 minutes. 9/10

I can’t think of any metric by which anyone can claim that the War on Drugs has been a success. The cartels, having expanded from South America into Central America and Mexico, are busy turning those countries into replicas of their homelands, corruptocracies ruled by whoever can afford to pay the powers that be to look the other way. Demand for the cartels’ product, driven by consumers north of the Mexico-United States border, doesn’t seem to have diminished. Nativist politicans trade on ugly ethnic stereotypes to gain popularity. American diplomacy works on the “son-of-a-bitch” system perfected during the Cold War; resentment towards our nation festers as we make alliances with what we hope is the lesser of two evils.

This is the backdrop of Denis Villenueve’s crime action-thriller Sicario. FBI Special Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) joins a multi-agency taskforce led by military consultant (a fancy way of saying “CIA agent”) Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Latin American intelligence asset Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). Their goal is to take down notorious drug lords Manuel Díaz and Fausto Alarcón.

Villenueve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan give their story a structure similar to Apocalypse Now, with Macer taking the role of the soldier who thinks she’s tough, but soon finds her perceived toughness inadquate for her survival. Graver and Gillick aren’t tough or hard men; they’re sociopaths and psychopaths, for whom the means justify the ends. In such an environment, idealism rots like the dismembered, defiled bodies she sees hanging from the viaducts of Ciudad Juárez.

The entire cast shines–even minor characters such as Jeffrey Donovan (Burn Notice) as a CIA spook and Maximiliano Hernández (The Americans) as a cartel menial–but Blunt and del Toro command all the attention. Blunt perfectly embodies the balance of toughness and vulnerability that plagues too many actresses trying to pull off contrived “strong female characters,” while del Toro is one of the scariest dead-eyed psychos since Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.

The ensemble helps to keep the production grounded when Sheridan’s screenplay lapses too far into absurdist territory. The performances fit well with Villenueve’s brutal direction and stark yet beautiful cinematography courtesy the great Roger Deakins. Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson provies a churning, queasy score that often induces feelings similar to nausea, all the better to maintain unease in the audience.

Sicario isn’t just a crime drama; it’s a meditation on how to preserve morality in an environment where morality doesn’t exist. It’s a cautionary tale, a warning of what will come if we continue to course we’re on. It’s one of the best films of the year.

SICARIO poster.

Enemy

Enemy is one hell of a cinematic puzzle, offering much viewers who like combing a movie for clues to what’s actually going on. On the other hand, I found I didn’t care much about the characters or the story.

Canada. Directed by Denis Villenueve, 2013. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Sarah Gadon, Melanie Laurent. 90 minutes.

I try to go into a movie knowing as little as possible as possible about it. Sometimes I’ll be familiar with a trailer–one of the nice things about the peculiar subset of film that I cover for the Gallery is that trailers aren’t as often plagued with the problems that those for mainstream movies have–and a log line, but that’s it. If something strikes me as interesting, I’ll do my damnedest to avoid press coverage and even discussions with other people.

Here’s what I knew about Enemy at the moment I brought it up on Amazon Instant Video: it’s about a guy who meets a double. The other guy seemed to be an actor of some sort, seemed inclined towards intimidation, and dressed like he lived some sort of glamorous life or something.

I figured it was going to be a fairly straightforward action-thriller with a SF element…you know, like Orphan Black would be if it were a movie starring Jake Gyllenhaal. After the existential antics of +1 and Coherence, that would be just the ticket.

That’s being said, let’s ponder the words of Karl Pilkington one last time (I’m not using this quote in doppelgänger movie reviews anymore):

“What would do me head in is…does he think the same way, look the same way…how would I know which one I was?”

—Karl Pilkington, when asked about how he would respond to meeting his own doppelgänger

Pilkington said that in a podcast episode he recorded with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Gervais and Merchant respond by opining that that must be the stupidest question ever asked: you know which one’s you because you know you’re you. To which I would have asked, “…or are you?”

I’ll get back to that later, maybe; right now, let’s get back to Enemy. The two Jakes are Adam Bell and Anthony Claire. Bell is a nebbishy (or at least as nebbishy as Jake Gyllenhaal is allowed to look) history prof who doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent of Inglourious Basterds fame). Neither appears all that interested in the other, and while they do seem to have a fair amount of sex, it doesn’t seem particularly satisfying.

Meanwhile, Anthony Claire is (as I surmised) an actor, working under the stage name Daniel St. Claire. He’s more confident and less unkempt than Bell, but otherwise the two are identical. He’s married to Helen (Sarah Gadon, Cronenberg’s latest muse; she starred his last two movies, his upcoming Maps to the Stars, and his son Brandon’s Antiviral). Their relationship isn’t much better than Adam and Mary’s, although it must be marginally so because Helen is pregnant and Anthony enjoys privileges at a local sex club.

So. Adam discovers he has a doppelgänger and tracks Anthony down. Their meeting leaves them both anxious, confused, filled with dread. How can this be possible? Even if they are somehow long-lost twins, it’s impossible for two people to be exact physical duplicates, even down to scars and choice of facial hair, right?

That’s when a certain thing happens, a shocking thing, a thing that insists I recontextualize everything I’ve seen so far. That thing is the image of a huge–we’re talking kaiju-sized–spider striding above the Toronto skyline. From that point on, it becomes apparent that not everything that appears on-screen is meant to be considered as “real” and it’s up to the audience to determine what, if anything, is actually happening.

Writer/director Denis Villenueve has constructed one hell of a cinematic puzzle, and Enemy has a lot to offer viewers who like combing a movie for clues to what’s actually going on. The problem I have with the film is that’s not how I play the game, I’m not constantly scanning the image looking for the key to understanding the scene. (One YouTube video purporting to explain Enemy states that you can tell which of the Two Jakes appears in a scene: he’s “obviously wearing a wedding ring” and is therefore Anthony. But I’m not the sort of person who registers wedding rings, in either images or real life, unless my attention is directly called to them, so I missed that vital clue.)

I tend to go for writing/story first, then visual aesthetics. I wasn’t much impressed with the former: while I enjoyed the Pilkingtonian (see, told you I’d get back to that quote!) essence of the quest to find the true nature of the Two Jakes, the characterization is so weak I didn’t find myself emotionally invested in the outcome. Mary is a complete cipher as a character; Helen isn’t much better, although I do like Gadon as an actress and she puts in a good performance here.

The look and the feel of the film are the main selling point to me. I’m not a huge fan of Villenueve’s work but I’ll give him that he’s got a great eye and a palpable feeling of dread oozes from every frame of the film. He clearly put a lot of thought behind the ideas. I just wish he’d done more work on the characters.

While I didn’t like Enemy as much as I wish I had, I respect Denis Villenueve for having the guts to make a film that demands the audience pay very close attention and use its brain. Sadly, it’s not quite my thing.

Enemy poster