I don’t understand the praise and hype heaped upon filmmaker Ben Wheatley. He’s got a nice eye for visuals but whenever I see his name attached as a screenwriter, my expectations sink. His 2016 film High Rise was on my list of the worst films of last year. To my mind, Wheatley is Nicolas Refn (Neon Demon) lite, and I don’t even care for Refn. With that being said, the premise and star power for Free Fire looked enough to even out my immediate hesitation about watching another Wheatley film. It looked like fun. How could it not be? Well I’m now debating whether I disliked Free Fire more than High Rise, a scenario with no real winner.
In 1978, two gangs meet in a Boston warehouse to make an exchange of guns and drugs for money. Things go wrong, tempers flare, and bullets are exchanged. Both parties are pinned down, fighting for cover, and looking to come out alive and on top. There’s Cillian Murphy, Oscar-winning Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Michael Smiley, and Sharlto Copley among this dingy dozen.
Exiting my theater screening, I got into a discussion with my pal, Ben Bailey. He was adamant that the story premise of Free Fire could not be done as a feature film and was, at best, the sort of material for a 20-minute shoot-em-up short. I argued that with the proper development there could be a scraggly feature film here but the key phrase is “proper development,” something that is sorely lacking from Free Fire. Ultimately it feels more like Ben’s assessment: 20 minutes of thin material and thought stretched out to an interminable 85 minutes.
Once the shootout commences, it feels like Wheatley just succumbs to the cacophonous confusion of the action and more or less gives up. For a solid twenty minutes or so, the movie is nothing more than a series of disjointed shots of people firing and people taking cover from wooden boxes and planks, rarely if ever coalescing to produce a sense of direction, momentum, and geography. I didn’t know where anybody was and especially in relationship to anyone else. That is a crucial factor in action sequences especially in a limited location action sequence. You need to know who is where and establish different mini-goals and new challenges. Wheatley only introduces new elements late into the proceedings, and when he does they are anticlimactically resolved. When complications do arrive they are brushed aside and we go back to shooting. Why not involve the guns in those crates as something to be fought over to gain extra leverage? That seems like an obvious goal but not to the characters on screen. I lost track of which characters were with which side, and the movie even tries to make the same joke, as if knowingly acknowledging this aspect forgives Free Fire for its plotting misfires.
As minute after minute of blind shooting went on, I started making connections to a question I have had with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, Song to Song) movies, namely how does one edit these things? If you’ve never seen a modern Malick movie, first consider yourself fortunate, but the man is known for his whispery, stream-of-consciousness spiritual connections with nature. My question with Malick movies: how does someone know that this shot of light through the leaves needs to be here, and definitely before this shot of a caterpillar moving along a tree branch? How do you edit what is bereft of a traditional coherency? I wondered the same question during Free Fire. Without those mini-goals, how does one edit just gunshot after gunshot after gunshot without any credible change in the story’s impetus as guidance?
Compounding my boredom and general confusion is the reality that these criminal lowlifes are dull characters and not worth the investment. Wheatley and co-screenwriter Amy Jump fail to provide interesting personalities or quirks or anything memorable to enliven these tough-talking bad-shooting bad guys. Some of them have accents, one of them is a woman, one of them likes to smoke pot, but really they’re all slight variations on the same excitable, profane, and shallow archetype, the kind of character that gets their own poster in marketing with a nickname like “The Kid” or something cool-sounding like that, but it’s all posturing. I thought that Free Fire might be reminiscent of the rise of Tarantino knockoff films in the 90s (The Big Hit, 2 Days in the Valley, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Suicide Kings) but this movie actually made me yearn for a Tarantino knockoff.
These people are so lifeless. I didn’t care who lived and who died. They were all boring. Some faces are recognizable like Hammer and Smiley and Murphy but a majority of the characters are not, at least initially visually distinctive. It’s a failing of creativity to separate them, make them distinct. Much of the acting is just reacting to squibs going off and squirming on the ground. If you have a fetish for Brie Larson (Kong: Skull Island) wriggling, this is your film. By default the best actor is Copley (Hardcore Henry) as he seems to be on an uncontrollable improv stint, rapidly saying whatever things comes to mind. Something has to fill the audio between gunfire.
Free Fire wants to be a scuzzy, crazy, fun movie that knows it’s trashy and revels in its bad taste and loony characters with nose-thumbing glee. Instead, Free Fire is a nihilistic and tedious enterprise lacking entertaining characters, coherent action, and most importantly any general sense of fun. Watching characters that are unmemorable, who you don’t care about, fire guns indiscriminately for a long time is not a movie, and it’s most certainly not a good movie. It’s a glorified training manual for firearms. Free Fire takes too long to get started with poorly developed characters and when it does kick into action the movie doesn’t really improve too much. Free Fire is a Tarantino knockoff that doesn’t have the courage of its own B-movie convictions. It thinks just dressing the part is enough, substituting style and a blithe attitude for not even substance but the appearance of substance. It only has one truly memorable, queasy death, so even when it comes to bizarre violence it falters. This is one movie that wants to look cool and irreverent but ends up merely firing blanks.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity is a classic film noir and a classic crime drama about bad people doing bad things and doing them badly. It’s a rich narrative environment that has been explored in droves before and after. Double Indemnity was a box-office sensation, critical hit that was nominated for seven Oscars, and solidified Wilder as one of the most creative and daring writing and directing voices in cinema. This was only his third directing effort and it provided the freedom to make his own way through Hollywood. There’s a certain danger in going back to cinematic classics. It’s easy to see their influence in a sea of imitators and sometimes the accomplishments can be taken for granted just because the viewer is too removed from the initial splash the film made. Double Indemnity is a sharp, surefooted, and highly influential film that still resonates with suspense and intrigue. The formula was refined with Wilder at the helm and his genius can be readily recognized.
Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is a mid 30s insurance salesman in Los Angeles. He gets into some big trouble when a prospective client, Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), intimates that she would like to bump off her husband and profit from the act. Walter is appalled but also intrigued, drawn to the charms of the sexy Mrs. Dietrichson. He agrees and says they’re going to do it right. She takes out a hefty insurance policy on her husband that pays double for rare accidents, which spurs Neff to stage a phony accident where the injured Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) fell to his death off a train. The scheme is elaborate, with alibis, swapped identities, hiding places, and a minimal of public interactions. It seems perfectly executed that is until Neff’s boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), starts inspecting closer feeling something is amiss. Neff must outwit his boss and co-workers and keep the scheme from getting further out of control.
“I killed him for money – and a woman – and I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman.”
Thanks to the morally and creatively restrictive Hays Code, it’s easy to see all the roadblocks that could have sabotaged the movie from getting made, let alone becoming a great film. It’s a movie not just about adulterers but they’re also murderers, and the script places you in their perspective, clinging to hope they might succeed in their scheme. Admittedly, the characters are punished for their misdeeds by the film’s end as the Hays Code would demand, but the film experience was different, and Wilder made it so early on. Within minutes, as Walter Neff dictates his confession in his boss’ empty office, he admits to being a killer, to killing Mr. Dietrichson, and in doing so out of a desire for Mrs. Dietrichson. By the very fact that he’s slumped over, panting heavily, and confessing in sordid detail, we can rightfully assume that he did not get away with it. What’s left for the audience to discover? Wilder has already established the major turns of his story for his audience and seemingly robbed us of any notion of surprise. But that’s where Wilder’s storytelling prowess emerges, because it’s not so much a story of whether something was done or would be done, it’s a story of how and how to elude capture.
We’re locked into Neff’s perspective, and with it as an experienced insurance salesman, he knows the proper way to stage a murder, make it look like an accident, and not get caught. It’s in the details that Wilder hooks us, and as we watch the trap unravel, the movie becomes an exercise in nervous tension wondering what will trip up our lovers. An audience generally gravitates to smart characters trying to outwit others, appreciating the wiles but also, perhaps, wanting to see if the scheme can be accomplished. It pushes the audience into an interesting position of rooting for our murderer. There’s a wonderful scene right after Neff and Phyllis have deposited the body of her dead husband. They’ve hopped in her car and are ready to flee the scene of the crime, and that’s when her car won’t start. Wilder simmers in the moment, luxuriating in the encroaching panic as key turn after key turn only results in the sounds of a stalled engine. Finally, it starts, but during the sequence you empathize with the killers and their panic. Wilder and company have done their job and at least some part of the audience is pushing for them to escape. What happens later tests audience loyalty, but we’re still firmly in the perspective and in the shoes of the film’s killer, the only killer in the picture at that. He’s our man.
“I think you’re rotten.”
“I think you’re swell – so long as I’m not your husband.”
The staples of noir cinema really came alive with Wilder’s excellent crime drama. The visual signifiers we associate with the genre are all here in accordance, like the chiaroscuro lighting that bathed the actors in swaths of invading darkness. The lighting does a great job of reflecting the sordid schemes of our lovers. As soon as Walter accepts, the lighting changes drastically and the layers of dark creep in on the actors’ faces. The dialogue by Wilder and Raymond Chandler (his first screenwriting gig in Hollywood) has that robust rat-a-tat rhythms of hardboiled genre fiction that we love. The twists and turns keep an audience glued even though we have already been told the major plot particulars. The inclusion of Mr. Dietrich’s twenty-something daughter Lola (Jean Heather) from his previous marriage presents an intriguing complication. She suspects her wicked stepmother might have something to do with her father’s death as well as her mother’s death. Walter Neff keeps tabs on her as a means of trying to dissuade whom she tells her suspicions to, as a means of manipulating her, but then when Lola reveals that her ex-boyfriend has been seeing Phyllis on a nightly basis, we don’t know what to think. Is Phyllis setting up her own scheme to kill Neff? Is Lola knowingly manipulating Neff to enact vengeance against her hated stepmother? Is there anyone a guy can trust? It’s a fine character and played sincerely by Heather (Going My Way) almost to the point of ache. She stopped acting altogether in 1949, to the detriment of us all.
But the ultimate femme fatale is Stanwyck (The Lady Eve). I think what makes her work is the fact that she doesn’t immediately leap to mind as a femme fatale. She’s not the most gorgeous actress in Hollywood, though clearly still an attractive woman. The stiff blonde wig they saddled her with doesn’t help on that front. She’s a temptress that doesn’t sizzle off the screen so much as step from the mind because she feels more realistic. Working within the repressive confines of the Hays Code, Stanwyck still knows how to provide a sexy smirk to things left unsaid with her character. There are a few looks she employs that could make you melt. A standout scene focuses entirely on her face. Her husband is being murdered just off screen. That violent act is left to our morbid imaginations while we watch Stanwyck’s subtle expression of satisfaction cross her face only to dissolve when she knows better. I wish MacMurray (The Absentminded Professor) was a better scene partner with her. He seems overly stiff like he’s trying harder to get out the stylized dialogue in the tone the director wants. Wilder finds ways to subvert the actor’s tendencies but I feel like he’s at best a likable but limited dolt of an actor.
“You’re not smarter, Walter… you’re just a little taller.”
Phyllis is a classic femme fatale figure and Stanwyck plays her with a beautifully controlled sense of menace, but I want to offer a different theory as to what kind of twisted love story inhabits Double Indemnity. I think Walter Neff was never in love with Phyllis, though he acknowledged her beauty and general seductive effect. This much is clear from his first meeting with her where the insurance veteran can’t help himself with how forward and transparent his flirting is. He’s interested, though he’s also interested in getting a sale, and then when she floats the idea of life insurance, his tone immediately changes. The flirting stops cold and he promptly sees himself out. But he can’t stop thinking it over. I propose he isn’t drawn to Phyllis so much as he’s drawn to the intellectual challenge of pulling off the “perfect crime.” He considers himself a clever man and this would put all his skills to the test. He knows what agents look for to suss out foul play. He knows what the police ask about. Now he gets to see if he can fool them all. In this interpretation of mine it’s not Neff’s love for the dame that gets him but his love of his ego. There’s a cold manner in how often he calls Phyllis “baby,” lacking apparent affection and instead seemingly turning the pet name into something dutiful. Oh, but you’ll argue, his voice over goes into great detail about the magnetic and sexual appeal of Mrs. Dietrichson, and that’s the point to remember, that it’s his voice over. Neff is retelling this story, knowingly dictating his confession, and perhaps he’s playing into a narrative that removes some of the emphasis from his true intentions. I propose Neff is an unreliable narrator. Since it’s from his perspective, his words are all we know about Phyllis and her assumed seductress ways. Having the final word on his story would provide a perfect opportunity for Walter to alter the story as best he sees fit, shifting some blame onto the woman who done him wrong. I believe that in the end it was Walter Neff’s desire to prove he could outsmart the world of law enforcement and get away with murder that drove him onto this wayward path and not a woman as fetching as Stanwyck and her anklet may have been.
There’s a very unexpected emotional current that surfaces fully by the conclusion of Double Indemnity. Edward G. Robinson was at a transitional point in his career, having been the lead in a slew of older crime pictures. An audience was prepped from association to consider Robinson a disreputable character, just as they had prepped to consider MacMurray’s character a likeable fellow from his previous comedic roles. Wilder’s film flips audience expectations to great effect. MacMurray is the cunning murderer and Robinson is the moral center. Keyes is exceptionally skilled at insurance fraud and it naturally should be him that unknowingly tightens the noose around his beloved employee as he gets closer and closer to the truth. He just can’t see it; Walter Neff is so close he inhabits a blind spot. When Keyes does discover the truth, his crushing sense of disappointment he tries to hold back is an emotional moment that hits hard. It’s the professional and loving relationship between these men that helps to add something more to Double Indemnity; it’s got the noir staples we come to expect nowadays but it also has a surprisingly sweet and affecting father/son relationship between mentor and student. Robinson is terrific in the bravado moments like when he unleashes a torrent of statistical categories on suicide types and methods and he also sells the quiet hurt of a proud man who must admit he placed his trust in the wrong recipient.
“I couldn’t hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Double Indemnity is a film classic that holds up thanks to deft plotting that puts the audience in the place of the killers, solid twists and turns, and a clear understanding of the strengths of the genre. It’s a standout film noir that still stands rather tall. It’s always reassuring when the great pieces of art can still transport, still excite, and still resonate with the same feeling that communicates why they deserve their decades of plaudits and acclaim. Wilder was one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers who could hop genres like few others. His foray into noir cinema left a long lasting legacy for the genre and its fans to follow, and Double Indemnity is still the crackling crime thriller it was under the Hays Code. Perhaps the scrutiny of censorship forced Wilder and Chandler to get more creative, and the finished product is a taut and stylish imprint that others eagerly copied. There’s just something inherently interesting about bad people doing bad things badly no matter the best intentions of the moral crusaders of its day.
Nate’s Grade: A
With only three films, Ben Affleck has successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented directors when it comes to adult crime thrillers. It’s not just his superb directing chops; the man also serves as producer, lead actor on most films as well as a screenwriter, and Affleck’s ability to write flawed yet deeply human characters within genre parameters has accomplished actors flocking to work for him. Beyond his 2012 film Argo winning Best Picture, Affleck has gotten three different actors supporting Oscar nominations (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, Alan Arkin). He’s an actor’s director and a man who knows how to satisfy an audience hungry for authentic genre thrills and interesting characters. His latest film is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and is Affleck’s most ambitious film yet and it’s gorgeously brought to life. There’s still plenty to like and entertainment to be had with his Prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night, but it’s also unquestionably Affleck’s weakest film yet as a major director.
Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a hardened WWI veteran who says he came back to Boston as an “outlaw” (he seems to turn up his nose at being called a “gangster”). Joe settles into an easy life of crime with the local Irish gang lead by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Unfortunately, Joe’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), happens to be White’s main squeeze. Joe and Emma sneak around and carry on their relationship without proper discretion. Their secret is found out, Emma is dealt with, and Joe escapes with his life, serving a prison sentence and then enlisting in the Italian mob under local boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is sent to Tampa to manage the rum-running business, starting his life over. The area is ripe for expansion and it isn’t long before Joe is making friends and enemies over his exploits. He falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a fellow criminal with a working operation of Hispanic bootleggers. Joe warms to a local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) a girl who experiences the darker side of vice and becomes a troublesome born-again leader. All the while Albert White has relocated to Miami, and the specter of vengeance looms just within reach.
It’s a Prohibition gangster flick and Affleck makes sure to check as many boxes as he can when it comes to audience expectations for a pulpy hardboiled action drama. The production design is aces and the cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) is beautifully composed with its use of light, shadow, and framing. There are shots of violence that are exquisitely rendered so as to be their own art, like a man falling down a stairwell with a Tommy gun blasting above bathed in light. The production details are a sumptuous aspect that Affleck and his team put supreme effort into to better make their movie transporting. The action sequences have a genuine delight as they pop. A shootout throughout the grounds of a mob-owned hotel is an exciting climax that finds fun ways to provide genre thrills. The rise-and-fall structure of the story, mingled with a simple revenge motivation, is a suitable story vehicle for the audience to plug into. There are fun characters, fun moments, and sizzling action, all decorated in handsome period appropriate details. While Live by Night has its share of flaws, a dearth of entertainment is not one of them.
Tone and coherency end up being Affleck’s biggest obstacles he cannot overcome. It’s somewhat of a surprise considering his other directorial efforts brilliantly melded several genres while telling invigorating stories. I think the main fault is a screenplay trying to do too much when more streamlining was optimal. The specific goal that sets Joe in motion is a bit hazy and fails to provide a larger sense of direction for the arc of the tale. Affleck’s previous films were rock-solid in crafting overarching yet specific goals that propel the scenes onto a natural narrative trajectory. With Gone Baby Gone, it’s finding the missing girl. With The Town, it’s getting closer to a bank employee without having that relationship discovered by his cohorts. With Argo, it was rescuing the hostages. With Live by Night, it’s mostly getting vengeance against Albert White, though we don’t know how. In the meantime, we have episodic incidents failing to register connective tissue or at least a cause/effect relationship where it feels like a natural order of organic conflicts. The opening act in Boston that sets up Joe’s tragic love, jail time, and enmity with White could be removed entirely. I’d miss the thrilling 1920s car chase, which is also unique in that it’s the first period car chase I can think of that utilizes the mechanical limitations of the vehicles for extra tension, but it’s at best a moment of flash. Having the story pick up with Joe putting his life back together in sunny Florida would have been a cleaner entrance into this world for an audience. Once Joe ingratiates himself into this new world, the audience has to play another game of character introductions and assessing relationships and the balance of power. It feels a bit redundant after having our previous act pushed aside to reboot Joe’s world.
It feels like Affleck is trying to corral so many historical elements that he loses sight of the bigger picture. Joe’s criminal path seems comically easy at times as he builds a fledgling empire along the Floridian west coast. First it’s the law and then it’s the KKK and then it’s religious revivals that need to be dealt with. Each incident feels like a small vignette that observes the historical setting with an angle that will be perfunctorily dropped in short order. The conflicts and antagonists don’t feel sufficiently challenging and that lessens the intended suspense. When Joe is dealing with the KKK, it feels like he’s restraining himself out of politeness rather than a series of organic restrictions. The elements and tones don’t really seem to inform one another except in the most general sense, which leads to the film lacking suitable cohesion. It’s easy then for Affleck to overly rely on stock genre elements to provide much of the story arrangements.
The characters have difficulty escaping from the pulp trappings to emerge as three-dimensional figures. Graciela gets the worst of it, proving to be a capable bootlegging criminal in her own right who loses all sense of personality, agency, and import once she becomes romantically entwined with our hero. It’s as if she erased herself to better heal his broken heart. How kind of her. The religious revival element is ripe for further examination but it’s kept at a basic level. We’re never questioning the validity of Loretta’s conversion and sudden celebrity. Chris Cooper’s pragmatic lawman has the most potential as a man trying to keep his morals amidst the immoral. The character isn’t utilized in enough interesting ways that can also flesh out his dimensions, and his conclusion suffers from that absent development. The characters serve their purpose in a larger mechanical sense but they don’t feel like more recognizable human beings.
Affleck’s innate talent with actors reappears in a few choice moments, just enough to tantalize you with the promise of what Live by Night could have been. The standout moment for me is a sit-down between Joe and Loretta where she unburdens her self-doubts. This is a woman who has been preyed upon by others, had her hopes dashed, and is trying to reinvent herself as a religious leader, but even she doesn’t know if she believes that there’s a God. The scene is emotional, honest without being trite, and delivered pitch-perfect by Fanning (The Neon Demon). It’s the kind of scene that reminded me of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, how Affleck was deftly able to provide shading for his characters that opened them up. Miller (American Sniper) has immediate electricity to her performance and reminds you how good Affleck is at drawing out the best from his actors. British TV vet Glenister is so good as a villain that seems to relish being one that you wish he were in the movie more. He has a menace to him that draws you in closer. Maher (The Finest Hours) is a memorable cretin who you’ll be happy to be dealt with extreme prejudice. There isn’t a poor casting choice in the film (hey Clark Gregg, hey Anthony Michael Hall, hey Max Casella) except possibly one, and that’s Affleck himself. I know part of the reason he selects his directing efforts is the possibility of also tackling juicy acting roles, but this time he may not have been the best fit. He’s a little too calm, a little too smooth, a little too out of place for the period, and his director doesn’t push him far enough.
A strange thing happened midway through, namely how politically relevant and vicariously enjoyable Live by Night feels specifically for the year 2017. It’s a movie largely sent in the 1920s with characters on the fringes of society, and yet I was able to make pertinent connections to our troubled times of today. After a contentious presidential election where many feel that insidious and hateful extremist elements are being normalized and emboldened, there is something remarkably enjoyable about watching a murder montage of Klansmen. The Tampa chapter of the KKK takes aim with Joe’s business that profit from fornicators, Catholics, and especially black and brown people. They’re trying to shake Joe down for majority ownership but they’re too stupid, blinded by their racist and xenophobic ignorance, to accept Joe’s generous offers, and so they can’t help but bring righteous fury upon their lot. There is something innumerably enjoyable about watching abusive bigots brought down to size with bloody justice. I could have seen an entire movie of Joe and crew tearing through the Florida chapters of the KKK and just cleaning out the rabble. This sequence whets the appetite for what comes later. Without going into specific spoilers, the climax of the movie involves the put-upon minorities rising up against their bosses who, like the Klan, felt they were too powerful, too indispensable, and too clever to be seriously threatened. In its own way, it’s like a dark crime actualization of the American Dream. Unpack that if you will.
Live By Night is Affleck losing the depth of his world to its surface-level genre pleasures and they are indeed a pleasure. This isn’t a bad movie by any measure, only one of slight disappointment because it had the markings and abilities to be much more than the finished product. The tonal inconsistency and storylines provide episodic interludes and enticing moments, whether in action or acting, but they don’t blend together to form a more compelling and impressive whole. It’s a gangster movie that provides the gangster genre trappings but loses sight of what makes the characters in these movies so compelling, the moral complications, shifting loyalties, the impossible positions, and enclosing danger. I don’t think you’ll sweat too much over whether the main character will come out on top, which somewhat hinders the intensity of the action. When your movie is more predicated on those genre thrills than character or story, that’s an even bigger hindrance. It’s a fun world worth visiting but it doesn’t have the staying power of Affleck’s better efforts.
Nate’s Grade: B
I may be the last person on the planet to have finally watched Zootopia, Disney’s first quarter hit of the year, and I am very glad that I did. I was expecting something cute with the premise of a plucky rabbit (voiced winningly by Ginnfer Goodwin) joining forces with a wily grifter fox (Jason Bateman) in the sprawling animal metropolis, but what I wasn’t expecting was a fully thought out and stupendously imaginative world and a message that is just as thought out and pertinent. The anthropomorphic animal land is filled with colorful locations and plenty of amusing characters. It’s highly enjoyable just to sit back and watch. I knew I was in for something radically different and dare I say more ambitious when there was an N-word approximation joke within the first ten minutes. This was not a movie to be taken lying down. My attention was rewarded with an engaging relationship between the two leads, careful plotting, endlessly clever asides without relying upon an inordinate amount of pop-culture references, and ultimately a noble and relevant message about the power of inclusion, tolerance, and rejecting prejudice. The larger metaphor seems slightly muddied by the late reveal of who is behind the conspiracy to make the animals go feral, but I wouldn’t say it undercuts the film’s power. The characters charmed me and I was happy that each ecosystem factored into the story in fun and interesting ways. There are plenty of payoffs distributed throughout the movie to make it even more rewarding. Zootopia is a funny, entertaining, heartfelt, and immersive movie with great characters and a world I’d like to explore again. Given its billion-dollar success, I imagine a return trip will be in short order and we should all be thankful. Something this spry and creative needs to be appreciated.
Nate’s Grade: A
There was no stopping Titanic in 1997, iceberg be damned. James Cameron’s epic disaster movie had all the momentum of the times, and yet it’s a smaller movie that captured more of the critics and was far more deserving of the ultimate Oscar prizes that year. L.A. Confidential was based upon a James Ellroy novel that many argued was unfilmable. Enter journeyman director Curtis Hanson and novice screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and the pair stripped the book down from eight main characters to three, kept the spirit and essence of the book alive while rearranging the storylines for large-scale popcorn thrills. It’s been nearly twenty years since L.A. Confidential first seduced big screen audiences and its powers are still as alluring to this day. It’s a neo noir masterpiece.
In 1950s Los Angeles, not all is what it seems. The captain of the police, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell), is looking to keep the peace in the City of Angels as outside criminal elements are looking to fill the void from Mickey Cohen going to prison. Three police officers of very different stripes find themselves on the edges of a complicated murder case stemming from a massacre at the Nite Owl cafe. Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is the son of a famous police captain and wants to rise up the ranks as quickly as possible. He’s a political animal and unafraid of ruffling feathers. Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a bruiser of a man who enforces his own level of justice when it comes to men who beat or harass women. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a happily shady officer who serves as a consultant for a hit TV police procedural. The Night Owl case takes them into many sordid corridors of sex, money, and power, including Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger), part of Pierce Pratchett’s (David Strathairn) stable of prostitutes meant to look like movie stars, the mysterious self-serving sources to tabloid journalist Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito), and good cops and bad cops on the controversial L.A. police force.
This movie is a master class in plotting and structure, enough that it should be taught in film schools. By nature noir plots are meant to be busy and mysterious, and a guarantee for mystery is a Byzantine plot full of plenty of suspects, dispirit elements, and strange coincidences that eventually coalesce into a larger picture. The beauty of what Hanson and Helgeland have done is that they have made the script complex yet accessible, able to lose one’s self in the tangled web of intrigue but still able to see how all the myriad pieces fit perfectly together by the conclusion. There is an efficiency to the screenwriting that is mesmerizing. It all seems so effortless when you’re with storytellers this gifted or who have a divine connection to the source material. Forgoing the customary slow builds of recent film noir like the oft-cited Chinatown, L.A. Confidential just moves from the opening narration. Within the first 25 minutes, the movie has expertly set up all three of its main characters, what defines them, their separate goals, the obstacles in place, and previews how they will intersect into one another’s orbit, and then the Nite Owl case explodes. Every scene drives this narrative forward. Every scene reveals a little more depth to our characters or fleshes out a superb supporting cast. Every scene cements that contradictory theme of the glitzy allure and unseemly darkness of the post-war City of Angels. My only quibble is that before the truncated third act the movie resorts to a few easy shortcuts but by that point Hanson and Helgeland had more than earned their paces. This is one of the greatest modern screenplays, period (WGA listed it as #60 all-time).
There are so many remarkably assured sequences but I want to emphasize one in particular – Exley’s interrogation of the three Nite Owl suspects. “Oh I’ll break him,” Exley promises his superior before entering into the first interrogation room. At first you’re with the other officers and morbidly curious with his arrogance. By the end, your jaw hangs in amazement at the intuitive pressure this man is expertly applying. It’s a terrific moment that allows Exley to masterfully manipulate three different men, taking pieces and running toward accurate insinuations, building momentum and clarity. Each man is different and each man offers a new piece of the overall puzzle. A slight reference by one unlocks another’s confession. An overheard sound byte pushes another into self-defense. I’m convinced it was this scene that ensured robust and thorough interrogation was a crucial element of the gameplay for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, a noble misfire that definitely looked to replicate Hanson’s film as a user experience.
Noir is one film genre with a visual code that can get the best of directors, but Hanson played this to his advantage. Classic noir is filled with criminal activity and the allure of sex and violence, typified perhaps best in the position of the untrustworthy but oh-so-sexy femme fatale. Yet the majority of film noir was produced in an era of censorship thanks to the implementation of the notorious Hayes Code, making sure that audiences didn’t enjoy the sordid elements too far. Free of these restrictions, some modern filmmakers take the opportunity to revisit the noir landscape and fill in the blanks of old, furnishing an outpouring of unrestrained exploitation elements. Brian DePalma’s 2006 film The Black Dahlia (also based on an Ellroy novel) gets drunk on this mission, though “restrained” has never been a word I would associate with DePalma’s filmmaking anyway. My point, dear reader, is that it’s easy to get lost in the superficial trappings of the genre: sexy dames, corrupt lawmen, temptation, shootouts, schemes, and chiaroscuro lighting. It’s easy to dabble in these elements because they’re so nostalgic and celebrated.
Hanson did something different with his 1997 masterpiece. He builds upon the audience expectations with noir but he doesn’t let his complex story and characters come second to the visual spectacle of the famous genre. L.A. Confidential is in many ways a movie that straddles lines; old and new, indie and Hollywood classicism, and film noir and drama. It’s an adult film that doesn’t downplay its darkness, brutality, and moral ambiguity, yet when it comes to those exploitation elements, especially sex, it’s almost chaste. The relationship between Lynn and Bud seems refreshingly square, like it was pulled from Old Hollywood. The entire movie feels that way, an artifact that could exist any decade.
Hanson was something of a journeyman for most of his career, directing competent thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild. As Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman wrote in his eulogy for Hanson (he died in September 2016, a fact I shamefully didn’t know until writing this review), after 25 years in the industry the man became an earth-rattling auteur after the age of 50. That is a rarity. Who knew the guy had something this singularly brilliant within his grasp his entire career? The care he puts into the screen is evident from the opening montage onward. There’s an elusive magic to the filmmaking on display, a bracingly divine sense of how to move the camera for best effect, how to escalate and deescalate audience nerves. He knows his story structure and characters inside and out, but he also knows how to play an audience. His time making serviceable studio thrillers certainly helps him during the film’s climax, a bloody shootout that’s also a mini-siege thriller.
Hanson also assembled an incredible crew to enable his vision. The technical elements recreate the early 1950s L.A. time period with beguiling immediacy; the cinematography by Dante Spinotti (Heat) gives a sense of the darker elements just under the surface without having to overly rely upon the film language of staid noir visuals. Peter Honess’ sharp editing provides a downright Thelma Schoonmaker-esque musical orchestration to the proceedings, especially as the multiple storylines and developments spill onto one another. Speaking of music, the score by Jerry Goldsmith (Star Trek) is thick with the jazzy overtones of the genre. It’s a score that simmers with sexual tension and malevolence. The casting director deserves a lifetime free pass. There are a whopping 80 speaking parts in the movie, and each person is a great hire that builds a richer film.
While the plot of L.A. Confidential sucks you in right away, its characters take hold the strongest. Film noir is one genre that has a codified cheat sheet of character archetypes, and this movie fulfills and subverts them, finding surprising and gratifying ways to further round out these figures into complex and nuanced human beings. The three main characters all provide a different approach to law enforcement and when we see them start to work together it’s a wholly wonderful turn of events. Bud is the muscle, Exley is the brain, and Vincennes is the charm, and each one attacks the Nite Owl case and its subsequent leads from different angles that best apply to their set of skills. Each of the three characters discovers new pieces of evidence, new contacts and suspects, and when they start to work together it not only provides a payoff with the combined evidence but with the satisfying nature of their teamwork. That’s because they become better people when they work together and each moves closer to some moral redemption.
Bud is the loyal cop with a hair trigger and a penchant for being a white knight to abused women. His personal history of abuse makes him seek justice, often by his own fists. He has a rigid moral code of right and wrong and isn’t afraid to cross lines to achieve it. He’s also tired of being a bully and wants to be more than just the muscle. Exley is a straight arrow with a strong sense of moral righteousness and a mind for politics. He knows how to play sides for his own gain. He’s not afraid of making enemies within the department, and his opportunistic choices create many. He’s trying to forge his own path outside the shadow of his father, a famous lawman who was gunned down by a random purse-snatcher (“Rollo Tamassi”). He has to learn that he can’t do everything on his own. Finally, Vincennes is in many ways the face of the department as an ambassador to the world of TV and film. He’s succumbed fully to the glamour of Hollywood but he’s also full of profound self-loathing, trying to count how many compromises he’s made in life and where it’s gotten him. The appeal of the old life is crumbling and his detective instincts are reawakened, spurring Vincennes into the fray and surprising even himself. It’s extremely rare for any movie to successfully develop more than one protagonist, let alone three, and yet L.A. Confidential achieves this milestone so that when we alternate perspectives there isn’t a drop in viewer interest. Each man brings something different and interesting, each man reveals new hidden depths, and each character is fascinating to watch in this setting.
The gifted actors take the already excellent written material and elevate it even further, turning an already sterling movie into one of the all-time greats. Almost twenty years later, it’s fun to see these famous actors when they were young and, arguably, in their prime. Spacey (House of Cards) was on a tear at this point in his career, between his two well-deserved Oscar wins, and having the time of his life in every role. His character seemingly has the least complexity, a man who knows he’s sold out but believes himself to be enjoying the ride, but Spacey offers poignant glimpses of the man behind all that oily charm and sly glances. There’s a scene where he stumbles across a mistake of his making and the subtle, haunted expression playing across his face is amazing. The man was capable of expressing so much, and still is. Crowe was still a couple years from his big breakout in 2000’s Gladiator but he put himself on the Hollywood map as Bud White. He’s a coil of anger and pain looking for an outlet, and Crowe is magnetic as hell. His glowers could burn right through you. Pearce (Memento) was another knockout that solidified leading man status thanks to his performance as the rigidly self-righteous Exley. He’s a character that thinks he’s above moral reproach, and his humbling is a necessary part of solving the case. Exley is constantly surprising his peers and it feels like Pearce does the same, showing exciting new capabilities from scene to scene, from his stirring hire-wire act with the interrogation scene to his understated glimmer of fear through a poker face. These three performances are golden.
Nobody better represents sleaze than Danny DeVito’s character and the man brings a merry lechery to his tabloid journalist/exposition device. His unquenchable thirst for the worst in humanity to sell more papers feels even more sadly relevant given the media climate that contributed to the recent presidential election. Kim Basinger (Batman) won an Oscar for her somber performance, which reinvigorated her career. She’s good but I can’t help but feel that she won the Oscar in a weak field (my choice would be Julianne Moore for Boogie Nights). David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) is enjoyably nonplussed as a man who specializes in delivering vice. James Cromwell used every bit of audience warmth associated as the loveable farmer from Babe and used that to his advantage. His pragmatic police captain is a father figure for Exley and the audience and perfectly sets up a turn that leaves the audience spinning even twenty years later.
There are little details the could go unnoticed but confirm for me just how much thought was put into L.A. Confidential. Exley is chided by his superiors for wearing glasses as they think it makes him look weak. As the film develops and he gets more immersed in the Nite Owl case, his compulsions against violence and rash judgment start to waver about the same time he stops wearing his glasses, a subtle symbol of his difficulty to see things for what they truly are. I enjoyed that our introduction to Lynn is in a liquor store and she’s wearing a winter cloak that strongly resembles a nun’s habit. It’s a memorable costuming choice and also suggest Lynn’s penchant for straddling the line of devotion. The Patchett “whatever your heart desires” line of high-class prostitutes has allusions to our current media culture of celebrity worship and personalized sexual fantasies. It naturally ties into the exploitation of the dream factory of Hollywood that takes young ingénues with dreams in their head and squashes them pitilessly. It’s not the first film to explore the darker side of the film industry but that doesn’t make its themes lesser.
L.A. Confidential feels like the noir thrillers of old but stripped down to its essentials and given a new engine. It’s something that celebrates noir thrillers of old and Old Hollywood but it isn’t so lavish to either the genre or older time period that it loses sight of its own storytelling goals. The elaborate plot is complex and intensely engaging while still being accessible, populated with memorable and incredibly well developed characters, each given their own purpose and own insights that contribute to the larger whole. Hanson’s lasting accomplishment is a near-perfect masterpiece to the power of story structure and characterization. The three lead detectives are compelling on their own terms and the movie keeps them separate long enough that when they do come together it feels like a payoff all its own. Hanson recreates the world of classic film noir and makes it his own, using new Hollywood to lovingly recreate Old Hollywood. It’s the kind of movie I can watch again and again and discover new depths. It gave way to a wave of success for its participants. Hanson never quite delivered another movie on the level of L.A. Confidential, though I’ll posit that In Her Shoes is an underrated character piece. Helgeland has become a go-to screenwriter for many projects low (The Postman) and high (Mystic River) and became a director for A Knight’s Tale and 42. It’s a movie that plays just as strongly today as it did almost twenty years ago, and that’s the mesmerizing power of great storytelling and acting. L.A. Confidential is a lasting achievement that proves once more the power of our darker impulses. It’s stylish, seductive, smart, subversive, and everything you could ask for in a movie.
Nate’s Grade: A
In the mid 1980s, Pablo Escobar and his cartel were responsible for billions of dollars worth of narcotics filtering into the United States. It’s the kind of work that can fill up Robert Mazur’s (Bryan Cranston) career. He works as a Florida Customs agent but his specialty is going undercover for his assignments. He’s called out of retirement with the promise of striking high in the ranks of Escobar’s ring of lieutenants. Mazur’s partner, Emir (John Leguizamo), uses an unreliable informant to start the new identity, and so Mazur poses as a money laundering expert who offers his sundry services to the Colombian cartel. After blurting out that he has a fiancé in lieu of accepting a prostitute’s services as a very 80s way of saying “thank you,” the agency must now provide him with a fake wife, played by rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger). The two have to rely upon one another in a world of criminals and murderers who would have no gutting them.
My main feeling once The Infiltrator had come to its natural conclusion was that everything about this movie should have been better. It’s a terrific premise as we follow the undercover travails of a man trying to stay one step ahead and keep his dual lives separated, invariably having them bleed into one another especially as danger escalates and his cover may be blown. Then you add an untrained partner and the conflict magnifies from there. Then you have Mazur work his way up the food chain to the major lieutenants of Pablo Escobar. This movie should be exploding with dramatic irony, weighty decisions, and magnificent suspense, but it’s really not. So why not?
One reason is that the movie whiffs with its modest ambitions, namely in its shallow character study of Mazur and the lingering effects of pretending to be a very bad man. Going undercover has to be one of the most stressful jobs in law enforcement, and living two different lives has to have a noticeable psychological impact, eating away at our protagonist and affecting his relationships and sense of self. That doesn’t happen with The Infiltrator as the few glimpses we get of Mazur’s home life are mostly harmless check-ins. A red light is installed in his home to mean a secret special phone line. You would assume that some family situation has to draw out conflict from this scenario, maybe Mazur’s little girl answering the phone before he can reach it. Nothing of consequence happens with daddy’s special red light phone. The family, absent anything important to do but wait at home, becomes a drag on the narrative and doesn’t even fulfill what you would assume would be its primary service: contrast. In the world of The Infiltrator, sex, money, and drugs are rampant, but our protagonist is unaffected. He remains the same character from the beginning of the story to the end. We don’t really learn more about him other than he is skilled at going undercover. We don’t see any particular toll on him psychologically. We don’t feel the threat of what he’s going through because the movie doesn’t pretend it matters enough.
Going undercover with the Medellin Cartel should provide endless suspense scenarios. This movie should be rife with conflict, and yet it consistently finds deflating, coincidental outs to save its characters. As a good screenwriting rue of thumb, it’s acceptable to use coincidence to put your character into greater danger. It’s not a smart idea to use coincidence to save your character from danger. Example: in Donnie Brasco, a man approaches Johnny Depp’s character and clearly refers to him by his agency name, implying working together with the FBI. That’s a good use of coincidence. With The Infiltrator, Mazur’s secret recording in his briefcase is discovered by a mid-level cartel operative, for once it feels like Mazur is vulnerable. Then the movie quickly dispatches with this guy for a rash explanation and so he takes his secret to his grave. There’s another moment where Emir’s informant is about to squeal to some very bad people, with Emir in the room sweating bullets, and he too is wiped out before sharing his privileged information. The movie is filled with these frustrating solutions just when it seems like tensions is developed. The entire appeal of the undercover mob movie is the twists and turns to hide the real identity and make it out alive. I’m genuinely dumbfounded how much of this movie just skates by with little regard to drawing out effective tension.
I think I can crystallize just how poorly The Infiltrator handles its many threads of conflict with one great example. Kathy and Robert Mazur are fake getting married according o their cover stories, so what else does a fake bride-to-be do but seek out her fake husband’s tuxedo that he wore decades prior upon his real wedding to his real wife? Why does Robert need to wear the exact same tuxedo? Can his office not afford to rent a new one that likely more accurately represents his fitting size? Even if this cost-cutting measure was plausible, why must Kathy be the one to pick it up, and from Mrs. Mazur? It’s contrived and forced conflict to shove these two characters together, so that Mrs. Mazur can ask pointedly, “Are you sleeping with him?” Rather than say nothing, or dismiss the assertion, Kathy provides what has to be the most irritating and obfuscating answer: “I think you know the answer to that.” Does she? The film seems to think there is a simmering sexual tension between Kathy and Robert Mazur, but it never materializes. I guess we’re just supposed to assume a sexual tension. This scene is a pristine example of characters operating at a sub-level of intelligence because the movie wants to force contrived drama when there is already plenty of organic drama being ignored.
The last third of the movie is built around the relationship that Mazur and Kathy form with Robert Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt). With an actor of Bratt’s stature, you’d be lead to assume his character will have a significant amount of screen time; however, The Infiltrator also boasts blink-and-you’ll-miss-them performances from Amy Ryan and Jason Isaacs, so maybe not. Bratt’s character is a family man and we’re treated to several scenes with him and his wife. It’s meant to engender sympathy so that when the end comes around we can feel some conflicted emotions. Except this is another area where the screenplay cannot live up to its aims. At no point did I feel sympathy for this mobster. He’s a “family man” and we even see him with his daughter… in one scene who asks to sleep over at a friend’s. Robert preaches about the importance of trust and family in that typical way that all thinly veiled mobsters do in movies, and he even cooks, which is another personality trait I’m sure we’ve never seen in a film about mobsters. The entire last act is predicated on our undercover duo feeling guilt over setting up Robert and his family in an eventual sting, and this guilt feels entirely manufactured.
Cranston (Trumbo) is the real draw here and it’s easy enough to see how alluring the undercover gig is for an actor of immense talents. In the opening scene we get a sense of Mazur on the job, digging deep into a seedy drug dealer lounging in a bowling alley and making passes at the waitresses. It’s a meaty introduction that whets your appetites for the different personalities that Cranston will have to draw from on his next assignment. Cranston is routinely entertaining to watch but I couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed at what the film was asking him to do and what I fully know he’s capable of delivering. It’s like hiring a world famous chef and asking him to fix your plumbing. The other actors don’t distinguish themselves in their fleeting scenes except for Kruger (Inglorious Basterds) and Joseph Gilgun (TV’s Preacher) as a convict that Mazur likes to have pose as his driver/muscle. In the case of both actors, you wish that more had been made with their dynamic to the mission.
The Infiltrator is based on a true story and I assume that what I see on screen closely echoes Mazur’s real exploits and predicaments, but somewhere along the way the filmmakers lost track on what made this story tick. The psychological aspects are barely touched upon, the family conflicts are given careless lip service, the suspense sequences are clipped, under developed, and often solved by convenient coincidence, and the characters are too shallow to grow out from their stock roles. I know these are real human beings for the most part but they don’t feel anything more than genre archetypes. The Infiltrator does enough at a serviceable level of entertainment that it might pass some viewers’ lower threshold to fill an empty two-hour window. With all of its ready-made suspense possibilities and internal and external conflicts, this real-life story should be far more compelling than the one we’re given, which settles too often. It’s a genre movie masquerading as a character study except it’s blown its cover.
Nate’s Grade: C
Ever since I heard about its production, and especially after watching the first trailer, I have been intensely anticipating The Nice Guys, mostly because of my fervent and undying love for 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. That gem was writer/director Shane Black’s manic and deliriously entertaining comedy noir that reinvigorated star Robert Downey Jr.’s career. The Nice Guys looked very much like a spiritual successor or predecessor given its swanky 1970s setting. While an enjoyable and funny caper, there is a significant gap between KKBB’s genius and the altogether amusing though lesser escapades of The Nice Guys. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to have had my expectations too high, to be hoping for another magical onscreen alchemy like KKBB. Whatever the case, I was slightly let down by The Nice Guys around the time I realized that the best jokes were in the trailer. They are admittedly great jokes but what was left too often hit lower registers of funny. Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe have great chemistry together and Gosling especially showcases a talent for physical comedy that has been underutilized. When the movie finds ways to undercut detective movie tropes, like Gosling cutting his hand badly after a failed attempt to break into a locked window, that is when it feels most alive and fun. The action elements don’t feel as significantly connected, like a bunch of washout villains like a hitman named John Boy who has no memorable personality. The shaggy dog mystery has some entertaining detours but once again the real draw is the comic interplay of the two male leads and Black’s razor-sharp dialogue. The man perfected the buddy cop interplay at some point, and often the casual conversations and one-liners are more highlights than the set pieces. The Nice Guys is a funny, smart, and diverting detective action-comedy that is a solid effort from everyone involved. It’s just that I was hoping for a touch of the divine again and had to come back to Earth.
Nate’s Grade: B
Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key are gifted comedic performers, as often evidenced from their often-brilliant sketch comedy show Key & Peele. It was only a matter of time before they made the leap to feature-film players, and Keanu is a suitable springboard for the gents that portends to even better future results. Relying upon mistaken identity bluffs, Peele and Key play a pair of relatively straight-laced men who pretend to be violent gangsters in order to retrieve Peele’s stolen kitten. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t feel like an overextended sketch though it does have its narrative detours that dawdle (a celebrity drug deal is padded out with far too few jokes), running jokes that hold on for a beat too long and then some (the George Michael fascination culminates in a drug sequence that does absolutely nothing), and there are missed opportunities that seem obvious (Key using his new gangster friends to intimidate a man making advances on his wife). Will Forte’s hip-hop loving drug dealer feels like a character nobody knew what to do with, including Forte. What doesn’t disappoint is the natural comic chemistry of its leads as well as the movie’s ability to surprise, zigging rather than zagging, and finding small jokes just as satisfying as larger set pieces. I enjoyed when the guys’ insecurity butted against their bravado, like when Peele is trying to deflect credit for helping his new pal to do some very bad things. The onscreen action is somewhere between the wackier world of 21 Jump Street and the grisly, unfunny world of Pineapple Express but at least the filmmakers realize that an action-comedy still needs to present its action through a comic lens. I was laughing consistently throughout though it was mostly at a chuckle level, if I were to be honest. Keanu is a fairly fun comedy that you can’t help but think could have been more refined during its structureless periods, but then another joke appears and it’s hard to get too upset with the final enterprise. Keanu is funny enough but you sense that a better vehicle is on the horizon for these two gifted comedians. Oh and the cat is powerfully adorable.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Sometimes the most upsetting movies are the ones that have a glimmer of promise and then never take advantage of that promise, instead falling upon staid genre clichés and predictable plotting that makes you wonder how a good idea was smashed into a boring and formulaic product. Triple 9 falls into this category of film disappointment. It has a great premise: a group of corrupt cops (Chiwetel Ejiofer, Anthony Mackie) are in debt to an Israeli mob matriarch (Kate Winslet) and owe her one last score, and their solution to ensure they can get away with their crime is to arrange for a new cop on the beat (Casey Affleck) to be killed, thus providing a major distraction. The problem here is that none of these characters are at all interesting. They all have conflicts and the movie does a fine job of providing each one with some kind of pressure and general motivation, but outside of the forces against them, you can summarize them in a scant few words apiece (drug addict, war vet, single dad, etc.). The plot events also just seem to coast around until a pile-up of climaxes, all of which lack satisfying closure as the body count mounts. It’s hard to care, and the only character that seems worth following is Affleck’s newcomer sniffing out the dangers that are closing in on him. Woody Harrelson feels like he’s making a special guest appearance from a separate movie from Oren Moverman as a drug-addled and angry detective. Too often the characters feel out of orbit from one another, the storylines rarely coalescing. It feels like everyone was given the same acting note of being dour and harried. Winslet’s hammy turn as an Israeli mob boss allows her to reuse her accent from Steve Jobs. Director John Hillcoat (Lawless) provides a certain charge with how he stages the robbery sequences but it’s not enough. Triple 9 is a movie that wastes a great cast, a fine premise, and a talented director. It’s not terrible by most accounts but it’s resoundingly mediocre, and sometimes that can be even worse than bad.
Nate’s Grade: C
The word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, we’re told in a helpful opening text. It’s a term that has greater meaning in the landscape of the war on drugs, a war that has ravaged Mexico and its citizens. Sicario, the film, is grim and gripping and director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t hold back from the brutality of its reality. Sicario is a flat-out tremendous film. It’s the most intense film I’ve sat through since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that for long stretches of the 121-minute film I was literally tearing my hair out with delicious anxiety.
Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a Phoenix FBI Agent called in by her superiors with a very special offer. Matt (Josh Brolin), a government agent whose affiliation is classified, has a task force that he would like Kate to join. She’ll be taking it to the drug cartels by destabilizing their chain of power. Kate accepts the job. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign agent in alliance with Matt, and he seems to be deeply knowledgeable of the cartel and their practices. As the chaos swirls and the team gets closer to the cartel bosses, Kate has to reckon with what she is part of.
Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. I’ve written about it before but the key to suspense and horror is simply characters we care about and the worry of what will happen next. Sicario places our characters in the middle of an ongoing battle and serves them up as the change agent, the proverbial stick rattling the hornet’s nest of deadly cartels. There’s a wonderful sequence when Kate joins up with the team for her first mission. She’s been told she’ll be based in El Paso but in reality she and a team of Army Rangers are venturing across the Mexican border into Juarez. They’re picking up a high-level cartel informant and transporting him back to American soil. The ride into the country sets the stage as the caravan of black SUVs tears through the streets of Jaurez, bracketed by Mexican state police vehicles. We’ve previously been told at what points a likely trap might be staged, and so we wait, taking in the terrain, the distance, the exits, the personnel. We’re already sizing up the Mexican state police cars; is that one on the take? It’s at the end that the scene coalesces into an even stronger whole, as we literally have a climax in traffic. The border entrance is backed up, and so Kate and our team wait, all the while identifying some suspicious armed men in traffic lanes parallel to their vehicles. They’re told they cannot fire until deadly force is used, and so they wait and we wait. It’s a top-notch sequence where you’re nervously waiting for the boil, waiting for the explosion.
Writer Taylor Sheridan (best known as Deputy Chief Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. Sheridan’s structure is ingeniously tied into his larger message about the moral futility of the escalating war on drugs. As Kate becomes more immersed into the costs of her new role, of the mounting ethical compromises and legal loopholes, she becomes a background player and Alejandro takes center stage. Rather than simply harden up and sacrifice her ideals for the sake of her mission, Kate holds true to her principles, even if she might be the only one continuing to stick to the rules and a need for oversight. It makes her a far more interesting character and it all comes to a terrific climactic scene that hinges upon two characters at a forceful crossroads, each with diametrically opposed viewpoints. For all the action, Sheridan has found a great way for his story to have a character-based climax that hits harder than simply killing the Worst Bad Guy. As we learn more about the reasons Kate was selected, her literal marginalization in the story makes thematic sense, especially as she’s unwilling to become a “wolf” in a “country of wolves.” Alejandro is that wolf, and in the last act he becomes the film’s focus as the pieces of their destabilization plan fall into place. There’s a scene with Alejandro that is so cold-blooded yet badass that it made my audience gasp. As the bodies drop and blood is shed, Sicario doesn’t lose sight of its characters even to the very end.
Sheridan’s script tackles its subject with a propensity for acknowledging the messy reality. There are no easy solutions and perhaps the best solution is really one that is at odds with conventional legality. The United States is losing the war on drugs, and innocents are suffering in droves. Matt’s cavalier attitude is in response to the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has done little except to enshrine certain violent elements into power. He’s trying to clear a path for Alejandro, but for what aim afterward is ethically questionable. When you’ve got nothing but bad solutions, perhaps the best option is still one that’s a step too far. Sicario tackles the harsh realities of the war on drugs without ever dragging out a soapbox. The messages and debates are suffused in every frame, every taut sequence, even pained expression. It’s a message movie where the morality and the escalating action go hand-in-hand.
With Prisoners and now Sicario, Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. Villeneuve uses long takes of aerial photography hovering over the topography of Mexico and the American southwest. It has the effect of feeling like you’re surveying an alien planet. Added with the ominous score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), the tension can feel overwhelming at times. The menacing and percussion-heavy score makes it feel like an army is approaching. The movie also looks absolutely beautiful thanks to the cinematography from Roger Deakens. There are several lovely shots lit with the dying rays of sunlight, which I would admire further if my heart weren’t in my throat while watching. Villeneuve also knows when to pump the brakes, letting his film breathe, and letting his actors take center stage. There are several moments of restraint that allow the actors to flourish. From top to bottom, Sicario is a technical marvel that impresses as it continues to horrify.
Blunt as a badass is nothing new after her killer turn in last year’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow, but there’s way more to her than being a superhero with a gun. She’s the moral conscience of the movie and you may discover, as she does, how irrelevant such a stance may be in this underground world. She’s trying to make sense of it all, trying to go along with what she thinks is right, or at least making a difference, and swallowing her frustrations. She saves the best for last in a finale scene that pushes her character to the breaking point of her ethics, and Blunt floors you. While Blunt is our entry point into this world, and Brolin is amusing as a cavalier rogue agent, this is very much Del Toro’s movie. Alejandro could easily be the slick movie-cool hitman, a soulless killing-machine, but he’s a haunted man who knows he’s damned and goes about his business with steely resolve. Benicio Del Toro can often be confused with doing little acting because he so naturally underplays his characters, but keep watch and you’ll see a man who inherently knows his character. There are subtle shifts and small reveals that open up Alejandro, who is so hardened that this will be all you get.
There have been some complaints citing the film’s lack of perspective from the Mexican side of the border, which is fair but also overlooking Sicario’s complexity. With its fear of cartel war violence spilling over into American neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see this film becoming supposed evidence in a xenophobic political campaign. Surely Donald Trump will be talking about Sicario. There is a small degree of representation with a minor character involved in the drug trade. The movie flashes back to him and his family a few times, setting us up to expect he’ll return at a pivotal moment later. He’s a completely unremarkable character and the brief scenes we spend with him made me anxious to get back to Kate and the main story. I didn’t care, and then he did reappear and I was quite surprised to find myself actively caring for this minor character’s well being. In a scenario where it seems like there’s a lack of vulnerability, this character provides it. He’s not a bad person per se as just another cog in a corrupt machine trying to provide for his loved ones. It’s a window into the larger ramifications of Kate and Matt’s actions. The very last bittersweet image doesn’t feel like victory, more like a warning of impending consequences that will befall innocents, and they aren’t Americans.
It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied. This is exhilarating moviemaking, folks.
Nate’s Grade: A