Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, Daniel Kaluuya.
Who says that a woman cannot anchor a dark drama about the war on drugs? Because this great movie is proof that it can be done, and in a stellar way at that. Emily Blunt shines as Kate, an FBI agent who takes down drug rings in the American Southwest. After a particularly successful bust Kate, is asked to take part in a new task force intent on getting at the cartel bosses. The mission takes Kate and her team to Mexico, which showcases the truly horrific and terrifying effects of such a cutthroat and horrifying business. After the bombastic opening scenes of the film, the Mexican setting is really when the movie begins to heighten the action and the intensity, making sure that the viewer feels unease during every car ride, every traffic stop, each moment full of danger and dread. Dead bodies are hung by the cartels as warnings to those who may think of opposing them, every corner could serve as grounds of a surprise attack, the film is a thrill ride.
Along with the American feds is the mysterious Alejandro (del Toro), who provides input and direction and is a source of mistrust and friction for Kate. She can’t get a good read on him, and his refusal to explain his role or origins are maddening. Benicio del Toro is at his best in this film, his strongest role since the fantastic Traffic 15 years ago, which won him an Oscar. It’s interesting and a little disconcerting that the best roles for this fine actor are centered around Mexico and drugs, as if Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with him otherwise.
The movie is perfectly paced, and it is thrilling and nerve-wracking as it briskly moves from one dangerous situation to the next. The only issue with the film is the lighting, which is extremely frustrating and at times infuriating. Villeneuve (whose previous works I have not seen) chooses to shoot so many scenes with backlighting, in complete darkness, or using night vision, which is distracting and really irritating. I understand the importance of style and can appreciate when a director has a vision for the overall look of their film, especially one that is asking you, the viewer, to question the motivations of each character and to mistrust everyone. But when a movie relies on action heavy scenes and is as fast paced as this one, it’s not very fun to know that things are happening, people are getting shot at, chase scenes are occurring, and you are missing them or literally being left in the dark, having to guess exactly what is going on.
Overall, though, this movie is very worthy of its cast and an engaging thrill ride. A worthy effort that is a very pleasant marriage of action and drama, with a serious message that never becomes preachy.