Thursday 29 October 2015


Blurred Mentality

2015 USA
Directed by Dennis Villeneuve
UK cinema release print.

Well this is an interesting film and not the kind of thing I would normally go and see. Being as its subject matter is a war on the drug cartels between the US and Mexican borders, it comes dangerously close to being a gangster type of picture and I really don’t like those... gangster movies populated by psychotic murderers remind me too much of having to survive a middle class grammar school when I was growing up.

However, there were two things I did like about the trailer I saw. One, the fact that the movie has Emily Blunt in it... an actress who I’ve got a lot of time for, sharing the spotlight here with her two male co-stars Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. That being said, I’m not the greatest fan of either Brolin or Del Toro but they do pretty well in this and I’m finally beginning to get an insight on the power a performance from someone like Del Toro can bring to the table on films like this, where the line between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ is blurred so much that you are almost certainly in just as much danger, if not more, from the people purporting to be on the side of the law in this kind of scenario. That being said... I would love for somebody to write something for Del Toro that’s completely against type. I’d like to see how he could handle himself in a romantic comedy or some such because, with an actor this powerful... I’m guessing there are quite a few things we haven’t seen him do yet, of which he’s more than capable.

However, I’m digressing... so, yeah... I think Emily Blunt is an interesting actress and this is easily one of the best performances she’s done, I reckon but, seriously, she wasn’t enough on her own to draw me to check out a movie dealing with the kind of horrific subject matter that this film uses to explore its themes. The thing which equally got me to the cinema to check this out before it left is Jóhann Jóhannsson’s amazing score... which was getting good reports and I really needed to know if I should pick up the CD while that’s still available (the answer to that one is ‘yes’... but I’ll get to that later in the review).

Okay, so I’m there in the screening and the first thing I’m hit with is Roger Deakins exquisite cinematography filming a drug raid by the FBI... where we meet Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer. The opening sequences, encompassing both before and sometime after the raid, including an amazingly grim find between the walls of the house and a booby trap which kills some of the Feds, is clearly an attempt to unsettle the audience and build up an awareness of just how bad things can get in this movie. This way of building tension from showing us that terrible things are possible within the world of the characters is an impending threat tactic employed by a lot of film-makers over the years... off the top of my head I would compare it to the opening scenes of Steven Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park (reviewed here) and David Lynch’s Wild At Heart. 

This opening sequence absolutely makes everything seem dangerous and this sense of unease is brilliantly maintained by Deakin’s and Villeneuve’s contributions to the cinematography, shot design and the way these elements are put together. There’s a thing which is done throughout the movie which is give the camera eye, usually composed of sweeping and very smooth movement, a voyeuristic sense. It will often focus on an irrelevant or less necessary detail in a shot, such as another shot of a decomposing corpse (after we’ve already seen a load of these) or a basketball game... and then use these details as a starting point to open out the focus of the shot, usually with a pan or a zoom or some other camera flourish, and then allow the audience to catch and follow the real intent of the scene. It’s a really interesting way of looking at the content of the shot and, done quite leisurely as it is here, makes for a very creepy feel. You don’t know what’s going to be coming at you next... which is kinda the point and certainly gels with the fact that Emily Blunt’s character is never given the full facts of what she’s getting herself into and is on very shaky ground as to what to expect from any situation she gets involved in... which is why this particular visual approach in the design and movement through the frames is so appropriate on this movie. The style of the mise en scène puts the audience at exactly the same disadvantage as the main female protagonist... and it works very well.

There are also some truly beautiful sots of landscapes such as the first plane ride, where we never get an exterior shot of the plane carrying our ‘heroes’ to their destination... instead we get these amazing aerial shots which look like they could have been lifted out of Godrey Regio’s Koyaanisqaatsi and the shadow of the plane to indicate that what we are seeing relates to the path of the journey the lead actors are taking. There are a fair few arial shots used in this movie and the director also uses different media sourced in the film by the characters to do the storytelling at some points... such as a night vision lens on the helmets of certain people or a pan back and forth across a bank of black and white security cameras. This is all good stuff, is edited into the film in a less than intrusive manner and adds another layer of visual texture to the film.

Added to this we have some brilliant performances by the leads with Emily Blunt being particularly amazing in her role of, basically, observer (there’s a reason why she’s there and it becomes apparent by the final reel) and Del Toro and Brolin playing quite terrifying people who, frankly, are just as terrifying, unpredictable, merciless and, in the case of Del Toro, as evil as the cartel they are trying to destroy. This makes for a quite unnerving film and, coupled with the startlingly gorgeous cinematography, the juxtaposition of the grittiness and grimness of the lives of these people with the beauty of the way the camera catches them, it’s a very powerful combination and this film does get under one’s skin a little by the conclusion.

And then there’s that music. That score by Jóhannsson is pretty amazing. It’s not unique in that it seems to be using a lot of that kind of droning sound which has been so popular with movie audiences over the last few years in films like Gravity (reviewed here) and Interstellar (reviewed here) but he also hits the percussion beats quite a lot and the way it’s composed actually helps promote a lot of tension... especially when it’s low key and then suddenly dialled up right into the mix. You know when the music starts to ramp up that something big is going to go down... but it might not be as disturbing as some of the stuff which happens when there is no music playing at all. The film seems quite judiciously spotted in regards to which sequences are scored or left without music and, sometimes, the lack of music in the lead in to a scene produces its own uneasiness, to tell the truth. This is definitely something I need to listen to away from the world of the film so I’m looking forward to listening to the CD at some point soon.

And that’s about it for me and Sicario. I couldn’t watch it again because the moral ambiguities of the majority of the characters are quite disturbing but it’s certainly a fine, well made film which is a strange mix of styles, elevating the sleaziness in a really good looking package which, combined with the electric performances, raises it to something quite striking, arresting and ultimately disturbing... not to mention haunting. Definitely check this one out on a big screen because, as I said earlier, Roger Deakin’s cinematography is exquisite.

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