Greetings again from the darkness. Really good thrillers – the kind that make our palms sweat and cause us to forget to blink – are increasingly rare in the world of cinema these days. Writer Taylor Sheridan’s script doesn’t choose the good guys, but instead highlights the terror and lack of rules and morality that guide the border wars and drug cartels. It turns out the border isn’t the only line being crossed. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies) elevates Sheridan’s excellent script further with a strong cast and some outstanding camera work from the best Director of Photography working today, Roger Deakins.
The opening sequence is about as tense as anything we could ever hope for on screen, and it introduces us to FBI Agent Kate Macer, played by Emily Blunt. We soon learn Kate is a focused and dedicated tactical expert, who also happens to be idealistic enough to believe the raids conducted by her team are making a difference … at least until this belief is later challenged.
Kate quickly finds herself “volunteering” for a special task force with muddled goals, uncertain tactics, and secretive leadership. Josh Brolin plays Matt, the leader of the team. He charms his way through answering Kate’s questions without offering any substantive intel. When asked about the mission objective, Matt responds with “to create chaos” and a smirk. Adding to her confusion and wariness is the mysterious “consultant” Alejandro (the “hitman” of the title) played by Benecio Del Toro. Part of the brilliance of the script is that everyone seems to know what’s happening except Kate and us (the viewers)! Our understanding comes through the slow-drip method and keeps us fully engaged.
Similarities to both Zero Dark Thirty and Apocalypse Now struck me as the film progressed, but the sheer number of stress-inducing sequences set this apart as something different. A family dinner with a drug lord is one of the more fascinating and tension-packed scenes of the year. The moral complexity is thought-provoking, and the abundance of corruption and politics in relation to the cartels and war on drugs, leave us wondering not just whether this war can be won, but through what methods is it being fought.
“Welcome to Juarez”, says Alejandro, as the SUV motorcade makes its way past the remnants of a brutal crime scene. Although there are some tremendous sequences of tactical raids (and the best traffic jam you’ve seen), this should not be labeled as an action film … it’s so much more. Ms. Blunt’s character is the conscience of the film, but it’s Brolin’s Matt that makes us curious as to his background and motivation. And as interesting as are those two characters, they pale in comparison to Benecio’s man on a mission. Del Toro doesn’t act frequently, but he possesses the gift that has him dominating the screen … forcing our eyes to follow his every movement. Rumors have a prequel in the works that will focus on Alejandro’s roots. It’s the “land of wolves”, and Alejandro is an alpha.
Lastly, it must be stated that the film is a technical treat. The unique score from Johann Johannsson is never overbearing, and often mimics our pounding hearts. It’s worth taking note. Best of all is the work of the great Roger Deakins. His photography is astounding and this could be his best work yet. The desert landscapes are just as crucial as the claustrophobic raids or the impromptu strategy sessions, and Deakins puts us right where we need to be. As a companion piece to this excellent film, I would recommend Matthew Heineman’s extraordinary documentary from earlier this year, Cartel Land.