Two New Movies Worth Seeing

Sicario

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

An elected government task force tasked with decapitating the escalating drug cartels operating like empires over the southern border, but with the Tom Clancy-like stealth and shadowy authority enlists the skeptical services of FBI agent Kate (new American citizen Emily Blunt) and her partner in seeking out ruthless killers/drug wholesalers jefes and their underlings. For me, having recently been to El Paso and Juarez, having traversed these storied endless queues on the spans between the US and Mexico, and having walked the very same sandy roads next to the 16-foot fencing in these badlands overflown by satellite and choppers, SICARIO  bore an extra measure of verisimilitude and, undeniably, frisson.

You the audience automatically side with the POV of the “good guys,” and the perplexed Blunt, who is not told what the mission is, or her exact duties among these attack-hardened macho toughs with their night-vision infrared goggles and their service revolvers slung at their hips, their machine guns cocked, among all the other accoutrements of the modern soldiers of fortune, hung around the waist, head, shoulders and forearms in the latest tech gear like plumbers’ wet dreams.

Much of the movie is silent tracking, with frequent close-ups of Blunt’s delicate but roughened face perplexed, and the laconic replies of the gum-chewing head honcho, played with maximal panache and [goyische] chutzpah by the terrific Josh Brolin. But heaviest plaudits must be accorded the wily, taciturn, ancient-looking, lugubrious face of Benicio del Toro, an actor who gathers steam with a nod or a flicker of his finger into a bad guy's inner ear.

Who is he, really? We wonder, along with Kate/Blunt. He can’t be the same draft as the khaki’ed -- he’s too good with interrogations, comes from the Mexican barrio and hoarsely whispers the questions and threats en Espanol by innuendo that start his captive coyotes, mules and stolid under-jefes to sweat and silently plead their prayers.

Del Toro doesn’t say much, but what he says carries instant cred and sage weight. He spots drug-gang members among hundreds of waiting cars at the border checkpoints, directing a smashing bloodbath that horrifies Blunt and her partner inside their cars. 

“This’ll make all the papers in the States,” remarks one of the men.  

“Naah, it won’t even make the papers in El Paso,” corrects del Toro.

And we know it rings true. Last year, over 30,000 people -- involved in the drug trade or just unfortunates who happened to be in the way -- were tortured, beheaded, raped, robbed, and/or murdered at or around the border, in as fierce a show of brutality in the service of mercantile coke and drug trade as anything seen in the Middle East.

In the end, you aren’t sure what exactly transpires, quite, but the bad guys got their comeuppance. If you have the time and coin, the movie could do with a second viewing to hear word byplay and selective cues about what happened or will happen.

Rueful takeaway: It would also be great if the competence and omnipotent satellite-aided smarts exhibited in Sicario could translate into the real world of tunnels, border fencing and ceaseless breaching illegals.

****

 Room

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

For half this could-be-real film, a young, attractive woman, Ma (played affectingly by Brie Larsen) is locked in a tiny room with her child, she a product of abduction seven years earlier. With resourcefulness tinged with frustration and sublimated anger, she figures out what each day’s activity will be, entertains her child with baking, teaching school basics, drawing, reading, mini-exercises and spinning tales of the world she recalls, but her child has no knowledge of, save for the “magic” of the TV, an artifact old enough to show screen interference and ‘snow’ as often as it shows cartoons or weather. The 5-year-old has never seen the world at all; the entire consciousness is what they both refer to as Room.

Occasionally, the brute who abducted her and fathered the child thunders in, takes his pleasure, grumbles about Brie’s food and medication needs, and leaves, locking the heavy door with a combination she does not know. Her efforts to escape are heavily punished.

The film lifts halfway through, and the audience breathes again.

This story, by Emma Donoghue, has undeniable resonance. Ugly stories crop up, not only in Europe, but also in the United States, of men who lead outwardly “normal” lives, some even married, some with children, but who have imprisoned a woman -- or women -- and kept them incarcerated in sheds, basements or dungeons for years, until a neighbor or some fortunate happenstance leads to their discovery, removal and freeing.

The film would have benefited from not showing the face of the abductor, as the Hitchcockian fear suspended over the film of his unidentified presence would have heightened the anguish of empathizing with the impotent and furious Ma. But even with his body and face from time to time, the film has undeniable power. Though it’s not quite a date movie.

Also stars Joan Allen and William H. Macy. Does not star special effects or a single stunt man: Surprise. It must have cost the producers fifty-five-sixty dollars. 

What lesson, if any, does it convey? It’s an instructive practicum on how to survive a 15’x15’ claustrophobic existence with love, grace, protectiveness and ingenuity. And courage. And then some.