Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5.
USA, 2015. Black Label Media, Lionsgate, Thunder Road Pictures. Screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Produced by Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell, Molly Smith. Music by Johann Johannsson. Production Design by Patrice Vermette. Costume Design by Renee April. Film Editing by Joe Walker. Academy Awards 2015. Cannes Film Festival 2015. National Board of Review Awards 2015. North Carolina Film Critics Awards 2015. Toronto International Film Festival 2015. Washington Film Critics 2015.
An FBI agent (Emily Blunt) who specializes in kidnapping cases has a devastating experience during the raid on a drug lord’s house, searching for hostages who turns out to be bodies buried into walls. She is then plunged into a world of secrecy and brutality when CIA operatives take her along on their mission to fight the war on drugs further up the food chain, flying her to Mexico to find the head of the cartel, joined on her trip by a shady South American operative (Benicio Del Toro, his best work in years) whose allegiance she can never quite figure out. There’s also a charismatic CIA agent (Josh Brolin) with a laid-back grin and chilly resolve whose isolated emotional attitude matches the wide, parched vistas that Blunt is constantly standing alone in, accompanied only by a fellow agent who is berating her for her lack of attention to personal care. Each sequence is an increasingly strange tumble down a rabbit hole of complicated morals and tactics, with Blunt being given on the job training for a bigger, meaner world than she knows while, little by little, she starts to suspect she is there more as a token than as an integral part of the investigation. The tension increases in fascinating stages, each sequence a deeper trip down into madness until a climactic sequence through the desert tunnels that are used by illegal immigrants to cross the border takes your breath away. The film tells a highly familiar story and, thanks to Villeneuve’s razor-sharp direction and Roger Deakins’ haunting images, does so in ways that feel so fresh they almost burn. Even scenes of violence shock the seasoned viewer with situations that are often devastating: can you still indulge your bloodlust when the victims aren’t all tough guys just as dedicated to the war zone fray as our hero is? The failings are that the story also falls into the familiar trap of writing the woman as the idealistic, almost naïve point of view (her resolve to quit smoking falls apart when things get rough). Thankfully, having an actress as complicated and interesting as Blunt in the role keeps her from being a stock caricature.