Denis Villeneuve’s seventh feature is easily his most ambitious, and his best. It carries his strong and singular cinematic voice, is spookily rich in atmospheric and seemingly authentic detail, is expertly crafted and chock full of beautiful performances. Unfortunately it also suffers from Villeneuve’s propensity to wallow in ponderous self-satisfaction, and its storytelling is at times muddled and murky. Overall it’s absolutely worth seeing – and on the big screen, no doubt – but it’s a little frustrating.
Emily Blunt, photographed as a real person by Roger Deakins (and more on his work in a bit) plays Kate, an FBI agent based in Phoenix, Arizona, who specialises in rescuing kidnap victims. After displaying some inspiring work in the film’s crisply intense cold open, she’s recruited by a shadowy “advisor” (Josh Brolin) to take her skills further toward the front line in the war on the Mexican drug cartels, and in accepting the gig, loses whatever shreds of innocence she may still possess.
In keeping with Villeneuve’s work – in particular Incendies (2010) and Prisoners (2013) – it’s a nasty, dirty, violent, relentlessly dark universe we’re presented with, and the story of Kate’s plunge into the grim realities of the USA’s more extreme foreign policies is told without sentiment, pity, or for that matter, hope. Mexico’s Juarez is presented as a modern hell and the situation with the cartels essentially untenable. The film is peopled with characters we don’t care for, doing things we might very well find repugnant, but with Kate and her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), Villeneuve manages to construct a moral spine strong enough to carry us through the muck. Blunt has never been better; her Kate is simultaneously strong and fragile, knowing and naïve, and her dilemma is palpable and believable but never overplayed. It’s as though Blunt is letting us understand Kate in parcels, saving surprising and realistic aspects of her character for appropriate moments, and keeping some under soulful lock and key.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is simply sublime. Switching unobtrusively from formal set-ups to documentary-reminiscent handheld, from technologically enhanced POV to cold, florescent brutalism, Deakins’ camera fills us with the choking dust of this desert world (the film is set between Arizona and Mexico). It’s unflashy stuff, but it’s the subtle work of a true master. The score, by Jóhann Jóhannsson (Oscar-nominated last year for The Theory of Everything) is flashy stuff, drawing attention to itself with intense, overwhelming bass chords, but it completely suits the film’s frightening, almost horror-movie aesthetic.
There were elements of the storytelling that I found madly frustrating; one extended episode, involving the excellent and swiftly ascending actor John Bernthal, still makes no sense to me after a whole sleep’s worth of pondering, and I’m going to have to ask a couple of highly film-literate colleagues – both of whom loved this film – if they can possibly explain it. Villeneuve’s pacing is eccentric to the point of detriment, and the final twenty minutes or so unfortunately get bogged down in self-seriousness; they are over-extended and slow.
There are some astonishingly great episodes, however, including an early mission to Juarez that is among the best sequences I’ve seen in a film this year. And second-billed Benicio Del Toro, as a shadowy advisor to Josh Brolin’s shadowy advisor, gives a perfect Del Toro performance (as opposed to a ludicrous Del Toro performance); The Bull has got his groove back. If this film pops up in the Oscar nominations – and it very well might, especially for cinematography, direction and original screenplay (Taylor Sheridan) – expect to see Del Toro get a nod. He’s simply awesome.