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.)

Theory-of-Everything-PosterEvery year, there’s a certain film guaranteed to come out in the fall: the performance-driven biopic/period piece. The Theory of Everything, which is based on the life of the theoretical physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking, could be shrugged off as another one of those. But it shouldn’t. At the heart of the film are Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, who offer two of the most transcendent performances of the year.

Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking is uncanny. On the surface the actor captures the physicality of Hawking so impeccably some shots will remind the viewer of images of the real man (now 72 years old). As ALS gradually diminishes Stephen’s ability to control his muscles, Redmayne contorts into postures — face, lips, brow and all — vividly bringing Hawking’s familiar nuances to life. But it’s a gradual transformation that unfolds dynamically throughout much of the film. The story opens with his years in graduate school at Cambridge, where we first see him entrenched in an exuberant, playful bicycling race with a classmate. But he also has a klutzy side and bad penmanship. Then his clumsiness gradually becomes something else. His ankles buckle, his knees wobble and his hands become stiff. There are also changes in his speech, and just when you think Redmayne might run out of a range in Stephen’s debilitating condition, the actor goes deeper.

The challenge is to act through this and express a man who seems generally undeterred to crack “the theory of everything” while growing as an intellectual. Though Stephen’s slow plunge into ALS is portrayed as difficult and challenging, it’s also accepted as an inevitable, and the fact that the disease does not diminish Stephen’s brain power means he can maintain a certain TTOE_D02_01131_CROP1409353791steadfastness in his intellectual quest. There is a moment where he is trapped under a sweater he cannot fully pull over his head, but staring through the fibers into a fireplace leads him to a moment of eureka. When Jane finally comes over to help, he transmits a contained moment of transcendence. The disease does not really trap him, and that the sense is transmitted with delicacy under such physical constraints speaks to Redmayne’s careful approach to this character.

Though physically demanding, there is a balance of empathy and cockiness that also informs the role. It is essential that the filmmakers bring something else to this man so he does not appear like a caricature, and part of that lies in the chemistry between Redmayne and Jones. Their courtship is charming in how they cannot seem to resist one another, and it evolves through subtle glances glued together by intellectual exchanges between two people connecting with their minds, above all. Their eyes are always on each other with a coy, sweet curiosity and interest in what the other might say next. As the years pass, Jones never modulates Jane’s gaze, even when she might be angry or impatient with Stephen.

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Jones is wonderful to watch throughout the movie. She always seems connected, even when she becomes frustrated with her lover. The film is based on her perspective, after all, but it never feels like Jane is a victim. She still comes across as strong and loving, even when things grow complicated over the years, especially when other adults enter their lives.

The relationship could have easily slipped over the edge into unintended pathos, but the performances are so stellar and sincere while avoiding saccharine overdose that the characters feel easy to admire and sympathize with. Working from a script by Anthony McCarten who adapted Jane Hawking’s Travelling to Infinity: The True Story Behind The Theory of Everything, director James Marsh shows wondrous growth as a feature director. Though his first feature, Shadow Dancer (2012), had its moments of tension, the twisting story sometimes overwhelmed the heart of the film. The gloomy setting of 1990s-era Belfast limited his palette to a drab, cold quality that kept the audience at a distance. But this time, Marsh works with such a vibrant range of color and uses so much light, it virtually enhances the pacing of the film.

Marsh is also a man who understands the profound and varied shades of complexity in human relationships. It was there in his documentaries Man On Wire (2008) and Project Nim (2011). The latter was about the various figures who entered a chimpanzee’s life, during an experiment to raise the animal as a human. The former was a biography of the first wire-TTOE_D04_01827_R_CROP1409353818walker to walk between the Twin Towers, a man who experienced life more vividly when it he put in danger, and those who loved him suffered quite profoundly for it. Within these documentaries Marsh showed a deep compassion to the complex relationships between people, purpose and love, and it comes across in The Theory of Everything.

Ultimately, it’s the complexity of the relationship and the heart of the two lead performers that make this film worthwhile. It’s captured in the smallest moments sandwiched between montages that mark life events like a wedding and the births of children, and it has no shame going places that includes sexuality and the intrusion of other people into their lives. Marsh shows keen interest in the intimate details that can shake up a couple. Fine, there’s the schmaltzy score by Jóhann Jóhannsson featuring overwrought swooning strings and bright, tinkling piano that effectively if a bit too sweetly enhances the film’s emotional tone. Cinematographer Benoît Delhomme mostly uses shallow focus to highlight the acting by the two leads and enhance the bright lights in the backgrounds. But everything about the film is overshadowed by Redmayne and Jones. If you want to catch what’s sure to be a highlight of the acting offered this year in cinema, do not miss The Theory of Everything.

Hans Morgenstern

The Theory of Everything runs 123 minutes and is rated PG-13 (some language and sexual references). In South Florida the film began screening in limited release at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (see screening details for the latter here) as well the multiplexes at AMC Sunset Place, AMC Aventura, The Gateway 4, Regal South Beach and the Cinemark Palace. It opens wide everywhere else the following week, beginning Wednesday, Nov. 26, as well as at another indie cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach (see screening details for the latter here). Focus Features invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)