I watched this movie ages ago with friends, but it’s worth a re-watch. I love a good thriller.
Reflecting now on how Emily Blunt and Daniel Kaluuya provide the moral compass for the film; we see the drama unfold through Emily Blunt’s experiences, but also the outraged and supportive friendship of Daniel Kaluuya’s character. Wonderful support is provided by the depth of quiet actors such as Victor Garber. And who can say whose side Benicio del Toro is on?
A highly motivated FBI agent is recruited into a lawless American government agency in the fight against a murderous Mexican drug lord. In subtle ways, comparisons with the American army’s involvement in Iraq, women in the front line in the army and what it means to respect borders or not (even Trump’s horrible wall policy and criminalising of all illegal immigrants) is hinted at.
Wonderfully Denis Villeneuve’s camerawork lets the images tell the story, often without narrative. A highly weaponised task force invades a almost shanty town (very poor, working class industrialised settlement). Against this the family life of those involved in drug trafficking play out — their ordinary lives against their criminal ones, and causes us, the viewer, to contemplate the morality of it all.
It begins, in an almost real time, way with an investigation into a safe house on American territory. Blunt and her colleague find a whole host of decaying, tortured bodies holed up in the walls — and there is an explosive surprise in the shed.
With a team, Blunt (Kate) travels to Mexico to bring justice to this vicious drug smuggling baron. Yet the team seem to have no more ethics than those they’re fighting against, as rather than arrest key personnel involved and begin a embezzlement/fraud legal case; they simply kill them and a suspect is tortured into revealing information. Again it makes me think of the Iraq war and its peace and Guantanamo Bay. The team prepare to raid a tunnel under the US-Mexico border, using CIA jurisdiction.
Trust no-one seems to be the moto of this film. Even the tunnel is more a slaughter than a legal police raid. Corruption runs deep as even local police are acting as drug mules. In the ending, the camera plays on religious symbolism of salvation, prayer and peace before the avenger arrives, sits down with the drug cartel and his family at their comfortable dinner, shoots the family before the man’s eyes and then him, very slowly and painfully. Apparently this is justice as the man has done worse to others — but the whole system now seems unethical — we are as bad as the thing we seek to stop?
What makes this film is the time allowed for situations and circumstances to develop; the camera work firmly transplants us to wherever Kate is (as she becomes more deeply embedded into the very illegal fight against crime) — much is made of her size, a small, awkward woman alone in a man’s world, and the deep friendship between Kate and Reggie in a world where no relationship seems to be trustworthy. Being in the tunnel with Kate is almost overwhelming as unused to almost military equipment she keeps banging her helmet on the rocks, almost hyperventilates in the close, smoky atmosphere and shows her vulnerability, losing her body armour piece by piece.
Not that the war on drugs should stop, but at what cost to our souls, do we do the things we do, to stop crime and criminals? The film also causes us to think about the ongoing trauma, ethical choices and daily PTSD faced by those on the frontline (particularly police officers), and how we should support them well. And makes us think again about international meddling in the affairs of other countries.
One of the few films too that doesn’t glory in its brutality or violence — the menace is more in the run up to the threat, than when it actually happens. The camera cuts away more than it shows — the suspense and tension comes in the tightening movements of fast moving armoured vehicles or what we hear, rather than what we see. The only time the film loses this is in the attack on Blunt’s character (when she realises that her partner for the night is infact a criminal, not a reliable police officer) — felt like the director at that point was getting off on a woman being hurt, and I wish they’d cut away more.