Final PosterNote: we’ve waited a bit to share our review of this film to reference what some might consider spoilers.

Too many of director Denis Villeneuve’s films have had issues with communicating ambiguous ideas that stumble over key moments of heavy-handed contrivance or missteps in plot development, ultimately undermining his storytelling with disappointing cognitive dissonance. In Incendies (2010) he leans on deus ex machina for a twist to find resolution for a family torn apart by war that ultimately rings less like profundity and more like coincidence. With Enemy (2013), he sapped the creepy power of José Saramago’s book The Double by tacking on a hollow joke ending. In his latest, Sicario, a film about the lawlessness of the border between Mexico and the U.S., Villeneuve deflates a nihilistic outlook with a poorly resolved subplot of revenge that ends up glorifying the notion of lawlessness and does little to offer any enlightenment to a very real war at the border between the U.S. and Mexico.

All these films are exceptionally shot, have interesting characters brought to life with strong performances, but they all suffer from fatal flaws in storytelling that weaken them to places of mediocre film-making as a whole. Sicario has received high ratings among mainstream critics (see its score on Metacritic). We won’t argue that this movie is not exquisitely shot with rich mise-en-scène that enhances the film’s eerie, unsettling mood and even slyly connects characters across the border. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is key for the film’s seductive look. It opens with an arresting sweeping shot of an Arizona suburb as a militarized FBI and police force converge on a house from the edges of the screen. From close-ups to wide shots, Sicario never feels uninteresting to look at. For added tension, Jóhann Jóhannsson provides an appropriately percussive soundtrack, geared to ramp up heart rates.

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For all the effort behind the scenes to amp up the tension, Sicario‘s biggest strength lies in the film’s wide-eyed heart, actress Emily Blunt. She brings much sympathy to Kate Macer, a young but strong-willed FBI field operative with an idealistic, black and white mindset due for a reality check. After a startling discovery in that Arizona house punctuated by a booby trap that ends in the death of two officers, she is about to get her world upended. A cavalier big shot in flip-flops from D.C. (Josh Brolin) named Matt Graves recruits her for a cross-border operation that’s far from by-the-book. She’s off down the rabbit hole toward disillusioning enlightenment. Blunt does a lot with what is otherwise a one-dimensional character until she ends up a damsel in distress who can’t save herself in what is supposed to be some kind of profound revelation on a very complicated situation. Too many other characters feel archetypal and rote, including a family-man Juarez cop Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) who is but a cog in a corrupt machine and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a prosecutor from Colombia hired by the U.S. government as a very hands-on adviser.

The research by actor/writer Taylor Sheridan never goes deeper than the headlines: kidnappings that end in tragedy, dismembered bodies hung over an overpass, the police cooperating with the cartels to move drugs. Even the idea that the CIA is cooperating with Mexican police is old, albeit murky, news. It has been called Plan Mérida in Mexico. There’s an American-authored Wiki page about it calling it Mérida Initiative. By itself, the themes of the film fail to deliver a unique perspective and leave the theme broadly focused on shocking headlines presented as spectacle rather than exploring the deeper complexity of the issue of corruption and drug trafficking. It’s perfect stuff for Hollywood entertainment. No wonder a sequel was announced before the film opened in wide release, and of course it will focus on the film’s most romantic character: Alejandro, because Kate is proven ineffectual at film’s end.

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Sicario has taken a page from the action thriller Zero Dark Thirty (Film review: ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ brings obsession with elusive truth to vivid light), and we’re not talking about mutual scenes shot with night vision goggles. Although Sicario focuses on the War on Drugs rather than the War on Terror, both make the case that there are intangible forces that complicate issues to a degree that present no viable solutions through the “legal” or “good” route. At the heart of moral dilemmas in these films there happens to be a female character questioning the logic and mechanics of the process. However, as opposed to Zero Dark Thirty, the approach in Sicario leaves this female character under-developed. Kate makes us care about procedure but only slightly, as she quickly seems to loose any power in the shadows of men like Graves and Alejandro, and when she does try to exert her power she only finds herself in trouble. Her character drives the point home about the dangers of the drug war, but she’s never in enough danger to genuinely unnerve the audience. In typical Hollywood fashion she survives the mission with her life. It leaves the audience with a level of comfort that diffuses the film’s attempt at presenting a deep moral dilemma. To see how to handle such a character the right way see William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A., a film that probably wounldn’t pass today’s test audiences because it’s too disturbing to see a good guy killed half-way through the action. Sicario‘s filmmakers wouldn’t dare sacrifice the film’s thrills for a grim outlook that does genuine justice to the horrors of what happens to people who try to follow law and order in this drug war.

The movie reminds you of so many others before it and fails to capture a singular point of view to add a real sense of distinction. Films such as Miss Bala (2011) or Heli (‘Heli’ depicts human costs of drug-related violence with raw horror) were brilliant at focusing on particular characters and bringing to light the hidden dangers of the War on Drugs and their impact on everyday people. The complexity is there, and the end result does not mean filmmakers should completely throw their hands up when it comes to handling the multi-layered complexity of transnational illegal trade. Sicario becomes nothing more than a series of elaborate vignettes informed by headlines with a revenge tale tacked on to give the audience a sense of cathartic closure that makes it just a little bit easier to walk out of the theater.

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Many defenders will not dare prepare you for the climax of Sicario, in fear of spoiling the movie. However, it is here where the film drops off the deep end with a slick if stupefying rogue mission by Alejandro, decked out in black fatigues and armed with a gun and silencer, to avenge his family. It turns the movie into just another Death Wish iteration in stylish packaging. Before he heads off on his personal vendetta to kill Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo), the drug lord he holds responsible for the death of his loved ones, it is conveniently revealed that Alejandro’s wife had her head chopped off and his daughter was thrown into a vat of acid on the orders of this man. It’s meant to illicit sympathy for Alejandro, who is also revealed to have ties to the Medellín Cartel, so this act is also business. Not to mention, it also serves U.S. interests.

After a thrilling hunt out of a perfectly played level of a first-person shooter video game, which includes the rather indifferent killing of Silvio, Alejandro shoots is way to the dinner table of this drug lord. Holding Fausto, his wife and two young sons at gunpoint, Alejandro relishes his moment of meting his idea of justice. Before he dies, Fausto tells Alejandro — and in effect the audience — that he is no better a man for his actions because it was the Medellín Cartel who made Fausto, and the cycle will just continue (you know, to point out the obvious nihilism). Alejandro and then Fausto tells his kids to keep eating their dinner. They take little nibbles of the chicken at the ends of their forks, quaking with fear. Alejandro shoots the kids and wife. The kill shots happen off-screen, making the killings more palatable for the audience before Alejandro finally shoots a slack-jawed Fausto.

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Thus ends Sicario‘s climax, a rather romantic depiction of bad-ass killing sanitized by its own restraint, sending a rather mixed signal to the audience of hypocritical righteousness with a little gloss of amorality courtesy of the film’s writer. Alejandro is presented as a victim who deserves some justice just shortly before his act, and then the film flinches in the neat deaths of the wife and children with cutaways from horror and a brief, restrained shot of aftermath (see A History of Violence for how to imbue acts of violence with the ugliness necessary to implicate the audience rather than satiate their catharsis). It’s all too slick, patronizing and rather tasteless.

It’s such a tonal shift that it deflates any semblance of the danger in chaos that Villeneuve and Sheridan worked so hard to establish earlier in the film. The film also flourishes during the early scenes where the characters are shrouded in mystery as far as their connections and motivations. Unfortunately, when it comes to their reveal, they are nothing but archetypes serving another Hollywood movie that glorifies violence as a means to an end. What’s worse, due to this penultimate scene, the driving force of the film is removed from the overall bigger theme of drug trafficking. It becomes personal and vicarious, a glossy stunt imposing cheap thrills on the audience. It creates a haze of resolution where there should be none. By the time Kate has a chance to do something about holding on to her ideals, it no longer matters. Sicario is not a statement film without a statement. It’s a film that compromises its statement for high-gloss tension that ultimately celebrates revenge in its cinematic choices and therefore stumbles in trying to be so much more than it can ever try to be.

Hans Morgenstern with contibutions by Ana Morgenstern

Sicario runs 121 minutes, is in English and Spanish with English subtitles and is rated R (for somewhat gruesome violent and curse words). It opened in wide release last Friday. Lionsgate provided all images used in this review and invited us to a preview screening a week before its release for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Ana and Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Time travel and dystopia: two key tropes of the science-fiction genre. With Looper, director and sole screenwriter Rian Johnson has breathed a fresh verve of visceral life into them. After bursting onto the scene with the neo-noir Brickand falling a bit flat with the Brothers Bloom, Johnson returns to feature directing with a couple of “Breaking Bad” episodes under his belt and a sure-handed confidence.

Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also co-executive produced the film, impersonating Bruce Willis, who plays his character Joe in the future. The only misstep in Looper maybe the makeup Gordon-Levitt wears to look like Willis, which sometimes feels surreal but other times seems distracting. Gordon-Levitt has the Willis mannerisms down (that cool, half-interested reserve). That’s all many films have demanded to attach two different actors playing the same character.

The film takes place in a future where mobsters rule crowded cities, and you can shoot someone in the back in broad daylight for trying to take your stuff. The invention of time travel 30 years in the future (2072) allows for the two Joes to meet in this current past, 30 years into our future (2042). With time travel, the mafia’s hit men have become semi-skilled junkies (loopers) who just wait for their targets to be zapped back to 2042, who they take out pointblank with handheld cannons called blunderbusses. Usually, the targets arrive bound and hooded, making for easy hits. When Joe’s future self arrives hands free and staring him back in the eyes, the younger Joe chokes. Old Joe easily overtakes him because he has the experience of the future, not to mention who-knows-how-many groundhog day-like opportunities of having lived these encounters. The marvels of time travel.

The film’s gimmick may seem to rely on young Joe fulfilling his contract to kill old Joe so he might live out his future 30 years with happy abandon. But Looper has many more interesting things up its sleeve. The future seems to arrive thanks to capitalism gone awry and the loss of human rights. Technology has only advanced to make cell phones smaller, computers holographic, motorcycles wheel-less and drugs as easy to take as eye drops. Otherwise, most everyone seems to be a squatter living in decrepit buildings or on the street. The fact that some people are born with a “mutant” telekinetic ability they never seem to master beyond floating a coin an inch above their palm feels like a cute aside. However, Looper does not waste a single plot-point. When old Joe’s reason to avoid his death sentence comes to light, his mission in 2042 proves gasp-worthy.

At just under two hours long, Looper may sound long for a time travel sci-fi flick, but it earns a downshift in tone and pace by the film’s midpoint for an impressionable climax. Johnson knows what he’s doing when he seems to drag out young Joe’s respite from the chase at a farmhouse with Emily Blunt’s single mother Sara and her 10-year-old child Cid (Pierce Gagnon playing too-smart-for-his-age with creepy timing). This slower section is broken up by Old Joe’s scorched-earth rampage back in the city but also with a gradual deliberateness to allow the viewer to invest in these characters as channeled by some fine actors. Of course, not all movies need to run two hours long, but Johnson knows how to extend and earn the quiet moments with wit, and a revelation that follows will prove breath-taking.. You wonder why some films seem to pass through you like fast food? Those are the 88-minute, non-stop movies, which numb the mind via a barrage of action, horror, comedy and even dance moves, sapping any emotional investment by not pausing for a moment of reflection. A payoff does arrive in Looper beginning with a hired gun in search of Joe who appears at Sara’s door.

A well-earned series of plot twists and conflicts in morality will soon unfold that will leave the viewer wondering which characters they should sympathize with. It will surely leave some on edge. Looper built up the urgency to a sense I had not felt since I saw Drive last year. I felt as conflicted about these characters as I did for those in that ingenious identity mind-bender from Hong Kong, Infernal Affairs, which inspired Scorsese’s the Departed.

Johnson has produced a film with such confidence, you can forgive him for taking any perceived liberties with the rules of time travel and its effects on the notion there is only one continuum of existence (of course, it’s beyond that, thanks to quantum mechanics, so get over it). Looper indeed has a playful side, but Johnson turns on the dread just as quickly, making for one of the better, smarter science fiction films surely to leave all sorts of viewers satisfied.

Hans Morgenstern

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Looper is Rated R (the violence does get gruesome) and runs 118 min. It opens in wide release today. TriStar Pictures invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)