Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Listen to Me Marlon

To hear Marlon Brando tell it on audiotape, he was the sole force in transforming the character he played in “Apocalypse Now”, Col. Kurtz, into a creation of legendary status, re-imagining the part, re-writing the lines, even setting up the lighting. Of course, Francis Ford Coppola might beg to differ, and we do see a clip in which a news anchor suggests that Coppola does, but that’s tangential – the only voice we truly hear in “Listen to Me Marlon” is Marlon Brando’s; hence the title.  He’s in conversation with himself as much as he is with us. Documentaries are prone to employing talking heads but the only talking head “Listen to Me Marlon” employs is a 3D animation of its principal subject's head (looking like outtakes from “Superman: The Movie”), an emblematic conceit if there ever was one.

Steven Riley’s documentary is born from an untraditional device – that is, hundreds of hours of personal audio tapes recorded by Brando himself. Although the film also draws from clips of his performances, revolutionary, incendiary and otherwise, and more formal interviews, it is these rambling monologues that give “Listen to Me Marlon” its backbone. He called these recordings “self hypnosis.” He was trained, as the movie recounts, in the school of Stella Adler, the famed Method tutee who preached that actors should draw significantly from their own past to inform their present performances. In a way, that’s what these pseudo self-help messages come across – as Brando drawing on his past to consider how he got where he is and who he has become and where he might be going.

When these were recorded is never conveyed. Brando’s voice shifts throughout the film from younger to older, poetic and weary, and we never know quite where we are in his own personal accounts. This imbues the film with a stream-of-consciousness sensation, opening a page to Marlon Brando’s personal diary and leaping in. And for a man so spontaneously combustible in his best performances, this matches up to the documentary’s atmosphere, one that just sort of comes at you in undulating waves, where even if you can’t quite grasp what he’s saying or why he’s saying it, you remain compelled to listen.

So many documentaries take sides and you would expect a documentary about a particular man narrated, in a sense, by that particular man to be nothing but one-sided. Yet it’s not. Brando comes across almost gravely in touch with his failings as a father and clearly stricken with what he viewed as a meaningless to his professional trade. That he yearned to make some sort of a difference beyond art’s escapism is clear and this is tied back to decisions like sending a faux-native American to accept his second Oscar for “The Godfather.” Riley is sure to indulge in shots of a skeptical audience but he never treats Brando’s ardor for the issues with condescension. Brando expresses a genuine guilt about America’s role in more or less exterminating the natives who came before and, more than anything, guilt is what you get from his recordings. He was an emotionally torn-apart man and the emotions that he so ably captured on the big screen come across as being of little consequence to him.

There are a few moments near the beginning when Brando seems genuinely smitten by acting. “You want to stop that movement of popcorn to the mouth,” he remarks. “You do that with the truth.” But as his career progresses and his star rises, he more or less turns his back on the trade, dismissing acting as nothing more than lying, a disheartening admission from one of the profession's true titans. Still, the footage Riley employs makes it hard for Brando’s prowess not to be seen, and whether its conjurer believed in its emotional truth or not, it’s still there, forever and ever, for the rest of us to behold. Brando may not have thought much of his “I coulda been a contender” speech, but when you see it yet again in “Listen to Me Marlon”, you stop that movement of popcorn to your mouth.

Monday, October 12, 2015


If the real Mount Everest, both in 1996 and today, is plagued by overcrowding, so, perhaps inevitably, is Baltasar Kormákur’s “Everest”, based on the real life climb in May of 1996 that wrought so much tragedy. Rob Hall’s (Jason Clarke) commercial outfit, Adventure Consultants, designed to get amateur hikers to the summit of Mount Everest for a hefty fee has been copied by other mountaineering entrepreneurs, like Scott Fischer, played by Jake Gyllenhaal almost as if he belongs more on a Pacific beach than in the wilds between Nepal and Tibet, coming and going from “Everest’s” overstuffed narrative at his leisure. There are other groups too, and they are all on Everest to reach the top at roughly the same time, and they all get in one another’s way, which leads to to a logjam of characters (though don’t expect the heavy-lifting Sherpas to get much play; I mean, it’s only 2015!).

If you’ve read Jon Krakauer’s controversial best-seller chronicling the event, “Into Thin Air”, you will have a laid a base to keep all these people straight; if you haven’t, god speed. Kormákur tries alleviating this problem by casting a plethora of well-known faces in prominent roles so that you can simply pick them out on account of their off screen famousness. A few actors even manage to overcome their underwritten parts to find occasional flares of honest to goodness characterization. John Hawkes plays Doug Hansen, a divorcee working three jobs to fund his trip, and though he gets a speech about making the climb to inspire school kids, Hawkes’ sad-eyed demeanor hints less at inspiration than some kind of hole he can’t fill, a regret the film itself never seeks to explore. The part of Beck Weathers, meanwhile, could have been cliché – “one hundred percent Texan” – but Josh Brolin cuts through the broad exterior to evince a hubris that is inevitably smacked down.

If “Everest” has a true main character it is Rob Hall, portrayed with warmth by Clarke as a professional who seems somewhat overwhelmed by Everest as a tourist trap and quietly concerned so many competing expeditions will yield grave consequences. But the film as a whole never quite commits to the notion of itself as a cautionary tale. There are references to the perilousness of this undertaking as well as to the snarl of climbers that contributed directly to the loss of too much life, but Kormákur is decidedly reluctant to truly point fingers. And so it pogoes back and forth between being a mournful dirge and a triumph of the human spirit, one filmed in 3D IMAX. Its stunts are robust, of course, and its cinematography is striking, no doubt, and it’s often quite exciting, but it never really adopts a viewpoint. Unless, that is, you want to believe the real point-of-view in “Everest” is, well, Everest.

“He might as well be on the moon.” This is what Jan Hall (a gallant Keira Knightley, forced to phone in – literally – her entire performance ) says of her spouse, Rob, when she learns he’s stranded near the summit with no way down, penned in by a storm. If the line has a faint whiff of cheese it’s no less apt. At 29,029 feet, Chomolungma (and it’s really time we co-opting English speakers change Everest’s name back to Chomolungma, Denali style) might be on Earth, but its peak, settled in a death zone, where you’re dying even as you’re climbing, is basically as treacherous a journey as those manned flights to Earth’s satellite. And when the film invokes this faraway sensation, it soars.

An immaculate shot of a hiker line in the wee hours of dawn, their way lit by helmet lamps, makes them momentarily appear like anyone from any era, no different than mortal souls of George Leigh Mallory’s time. “The mountain makes its own weather,” we are told. In other words, it’s alive, it’s calling the shots, and if all these people trying to scale its towering heights seem insignificant, it’s because The Goddess Mother of Mountains reduces them all to specks in its shadow.

Friday, October 09, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Passenger (1975)

A couple years ago during my ill-fated return to higher learning, when homework and misery went hand-in-hand, I kept having recurring fantasies of driving away. That’s it. Just getting in a car and driving…away. I would listen to Little Boots’ “Motorway” and drift off to images of mindlessly cruising the Trans-Canada Highway, all 5,000 miles of it, just cutting out and going. Going where exactly? Well, that’s where the fantasy ended. I had no destination; just the white lines of the highway rolling on and on. I always figured there was no end point in the dream because once you reached Wherever it would be exactly like Everywhere Else.

As Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” opens, journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is in North Africa, trying to make contact with rebel fighters who are reputedly in the desert hills. He has no luck. Few words are spoken as he stumbles around a mostly empty town, offering cigarettes to anyone who’ll have who tell him nothing. When he finally seems to have made inroads, he hasn’t, getting stranded in the Saharan desert when his jeep gets stuck in the sand. He gets out by walking out, tired, sweaty, sunburned, disgusted, done. What kind of life is this? Apparently none it all. Once back at his primitive hotel, he finds the establishment’s other guest, David Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), an Englishman with whom Locke got drunk the previous evening, lying on his bed, dead.

Without explanation or even the slightest inkling of contemplation, Locke goes about assuming Robertson’s identity, changing out ID and telling the hotel that David Locke is dead. He insinuates himself into Robertson’s loner life by leaning on a planner filled with names and times on specific dates. Eventually it is revealed that Robertson’s business involved gun-running, which seems readymade for action and suspense, but this is primarily tangential, as is the story back home in London where Locke’s wife (Jenny Runacre) wonders what really happened and sends their mutual friend Martin (Ian Hendry) to find out. This leads to Locke evading both the authorities and the people from his previous life.

Locke’s co-conspirator becomes a girl played by Maria Schneider. She helps him out of a jam and then tags along. She is never given a name. She is as rootless as Locke wants to be. He keeps asking her why she’s along for the ride and she never really answers. The life she has walked out on is never made clear, perhaps because she would rather let it lie there. Like this stranger who intrigues her, she presses forward toward something, though who knows what. When she asks him what he’s running away from, he answers by telling her to turn her back to the front seat. She does. She sees the road receding. That’s good enough. What they’re moving toward is of no interest to camera. Maybe it’s of no interest to them.

There is a strange detachment throughout to Nicholson’s performance. Not just in the early sequences cluing us into his emotional malaise, but once we assumes Robertson’s identity. This swapping of selves would at first seem born of a desperation for something new, something different, something exciting. After all, in brief flashback to his conversation with Robertson, Locke notes the gloom that comes with a person’s formation of habits, live lived out in the same manner day after day, year after year. Yet even as someone else, even as someone caught up in illegalities and clandestine meetings, like something straight out of a spy novel, Nicholson gives the part no jolt and Antonioni keeps the film’s energy muted. Whatever Locke hoped to get from this ID switch, he doesn’t, life still drags on, and the past he wanted to toss in the incinerator is still snapping at his heels.

We’re all just passengers in our own lives, I suppose, gazing out the window as the scenery rolls by. And that is the most affecting visual motif in “The Passenger”, peering through the window. Over and over we see characters peering through the window or the camera itself, which often feels like a secondary character, the documentarian documenting this journo’s gradual untethering from the world. At one point, Robertson (Locke?) and the Girl sit in a seaside restaurant, chatting, drinking, eating, and he notices a woman out the window sitting in the sun. It’s as if he’s imagining who she is, what her life encompasses. Even here, in this idyll setting, he’s looking out the window, fantasizing about something else.

These recurring shots build gracefully to the film’s conclusion, as intoxicating a wrap-up in the medium as I’ve seen, unveiled in a seemingly unbroken take that begins in Locke/Robertson’s hotel room and then pushes out a window, a window lined with bars, evoking the prison cell to which he’s confined himself, and then drifts through those bars and into the piazza where the police and the people looking for Robertson/Locke descend upon his hotel room. As they do, the camera subtly pivots and floats back toward the room from which just exited, now looking into the window rather than out of it, the promise of what’s out there no longer beckoning, nothing left but what’s already in here.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Fact or Fiction? Fact-Checking Pan

On December 27, 1904 an apple-faced adolescent named Peter Pan invited Wendy Darling to join him in a place called Neverland along with his good-hearted gang, The Lost Boys. Famous adventures followed, involving an infamous showdown with an infamous privateer, Captain Hook. Director Joe Wright has fashioned a motion picture based on the exploits of Mr. Pan – titled, appropriately, “Pan” – and we here at Cinema Romantico have investigated the pertinent facts to determine where Mr. Wright sticks close to the truth and where he deviates.

Peter Pan. The real life Peter Pan quite famously dressed in “autumn leaves and cobwebs.” Does this look like autumn leaves and cobwebs to you? No, he just looks like Oliver Twist. That’s an entirely different kind of story altogether. Grade: F

Blackbeard. In “Pan”, Hugh Jackman’s Blackbeard kidnaps children and forces them to work in the mines of Neverland to harvest Pixum. Blackbeard, of course, was actually Edward Teach, a privateer turned pirate who caused mayhem in the West Indies and along the Atlantic coastline of the Americas after the War of Spanish Succession. While Blackbeard plundered many merchant ships, there are no verified accounts of his kidnapping children and it’s a historical absolute that he oversaw no Pixum mines. Grade: F

Jolly Roger. The Jolly Roger, of course, is the black flag adorned with a menacing skull and crossbones, flown by pirates to signal their nefariousness. And while the origin of the Jolly Roger is up for debate, we can authoritatively confirm the Jolly Roger was specifically a flag, never a ship. The Jolly Roger being presented as a ship in “Pan”, let alone a ship that can fly (ships, as is known, are specifically watercrafts), is monumental absurdity. Grade: F

Neverland. Neverland, as documented in many historical texts, was found in the minds of children. Neverland of “Pan” takes place in the mind of Joe Wright. He is 43 years old. He is not a child. Grade: F

Tick Tock the Crocodile. The infamous croc, his name bestowed upon him by Henry C. Mann, who first recounted the story in which the reptile bit off the hand of Captain for the Annapolis Herald, was “no bigger than an average croc.” Tick Tock the Crocodile in “Pan”, on the other hand, is the size of a dragon from feudal England. Grade: F

Pixum. In “Pan,” pixie dust is the street name for Pixum, a crystalline substance mined from deep within the earth that can restore youth. In reality, Pixum is a photo shop in Köln, Germany. Grade: F

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Catching Hell

Principally 2011’s “Catching Hell” is a re-telling of the Steve Bartman story. You know the guy – Cubs ball cap, green turtleneck, glasses, rickety old headphones, interfering with a foul ball that Cubs outfielder Moises Alou might’ve caught when his perennially cursed franchise was an improbable five outs from reaching the World Series in 2003. When Alou turned on Bartman in the immediate aftermath, so did Wrigley Field, so did the city of Chicago, so did the world. The Cubs lost that game not because of the comedy of playing errors that followed, they’d tell you, but because of Bartman’s intrusion. Director Alex Gibney, however, is not content simply to limit his story to the Friendly Confines and this event’s prelude and aftermath. No, he welcomingly broadens his scope, transforming his film into a ruminating on the meaning and need of sports scapegoats.

The film opens not with Bartman but with Buckner, as in Bill, as in the former Boston Red Sox first baseman who infamously had the ball go between his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series when his squad was but one out away from breaking The Curse of the Bambino and winning the World Series. Even after suffering defeat, a Game 7 remained, sure, but that was beside the point and Buckner was metaphorically strung up in effigy, the Goat of Goats, a man remembered not for a batting title and Gold Gloves but for one single play. For nearly twenty years he and his family were forced to endure abuse from a public mob that put the onus squarely on him for an entire team’s familiar and, frankly, for their own failings as human beings. Gibney sees Buckner’s tale as tantamount to Bartman’s. “I hope you rot in hell!” an amateur camera catches some unnamed Cubs fan hollering at Bartman. “Bill Buckner can rot in hell,” says an unnamed irate caller to some radio show in the aftermath of 1986’s Game 6. Bartman and Buckner, bless their put upon souls, were one in the same, unintentionally exposing the dark side of fandom.

Gibney scores a number of interviews, with players, reporters and fans (but not Bartman who has, rightfully, respectfully, wonderfully, turned down every single interview and public appearance and moneymaking scheme since that fateful night); but his biggest coup might be the fan who hurled a beer at Bartman and was ejected from the stadium. On camera, he appears a mild-mannered regular joe, but also, oddly (or not), unapologetic. His face is twisted into a smile the entire interview, and while it might be tinged with a teensy bit of embarrassment, mostly it’s without contrition. It’s actually kind of terrifying. And more than anything, “Catching Hell” captures the terror of a place where fans can go when they unite in the common interest of vengeance.

“Catching Hell” is about us, about fans, and our need for scapegoats; it’s about the incredible dangers of mass and instantaneous hysteria. Reams of amateur footage showing Bartman attempting to flee Wrigley Field with security elicit not simply sickness for the fate of humanity but deserved pangs of guilt for your own despicable moments as a fan. (I have a few.) A freeze-frame of Bartman that captures him in the moment when he’s suddenly made to realize the ferocious Cub-blue colossus he’s up against, is a split-second that should echo for an eternity, the fear a flash mob enraged members of a flash mob screaming and threatening to attack from all angles. A freeze-frame of Bartman that captures him in the moment when he’s suddenly made to realize the ferocious Cub-blue colossus he’s up against, is a split-second that should echo for an eternity, the fear a flash mob enraged members of a flash mob screaming and threatening to attack from all angles. I don’t mean to belittle police and military members who truly put their lives on the line day in and day out when I say the following, but the look in Bartman’s eyes in that instant is unmistakable – it is the look of a man internally thinking, “Oh my God, these people might actually kill me.”

Late in the film Gibney interviews Kathleen Rolenz, a Unitarian minister, one who knew nothing of the Cubs’ curse or of Bartman but came upon the story in researching a sermon on the nature of scapegoats. She eloquently describes the term in a religious context, how on the day of atonement a goat was chosen, and a priest took the goat into the temple in order to confer the sins of the people onto that animal.

Gibney offers a visual aid in the form of a historical painting rendering this ritual, but the truth is that we don’t really need it. He’s already caught this ritual in action, served up in the terror of that freeze frame, the most infamous baseball fan in the sport’s long history. He’s the scapegoat and you can see – literally see – incredibly sad human beings conferring their sins onto Bartman.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Who Is the MVP of Kicking and Screaming?

Twenty years ago this week “Kicking and Screaming” was released to great fanfare. Well, “great” might be a Trump-ian exaggeration. It was released, per Box Office Mojo, into a single theater. It pulled down $28,000. “Batman Forever”, which had been out 17 weeks already, pulled down $142,000 more. “Assassins”, which I remember going to see in the theater, made $12 million. The Times They Aren’t A Changin’. Still, “Kicking and Screaming” has lived on via a moderate cult of which I am totally part. My dear friends Jacob and Ashley both pushed me in the direction of this film way back when. I watched it. I loved it. I cherish it. To this day Ashley and I will often sign off on emails to one another not with our name but with a “Kicking and Screaming” quote. Like… “Who the hell bought black eyed peas”? Or: “There’s also that dark side to the nose ring.”

But I have addressed my affection for “Kicking and Screaming’s” dialogue and for the film itself years ago. And the truth is that Noah Baumbach’s film is defined just as much by its great characters and the exemplary performances that bring them life. It’s an ensemble filled to the brim, so much so that it begs indifferently asks the question... Who is “Kicking and Screaming’s” MVP? You (didn’t) ask, we deliver.

Who Is the MVP of Kicking and Screaming?

10. Jason Wiles. Even if Parker Posey (and we’ll get to her shortly) is supposed to be dating someone not quite right for her, her natural state of Posey-ness is nonetheless too much for Wiles to keep up with. And in comparison to the rest of his fellow “Cougars!”, sorry, but Wiles is breathing underwater.

9. Cara Buono. As a teenager tutee of Josh Hamilton’s Grover, it’s not so much that she infiltrates the group by displaying a wisdom beyond her years as she earns their respect by demonstrating a self-confidence by way of a confrontational attitude that these neurotic knuckleheads can’t help but admire.

8. Josh Hamilton. Remember when Winston Wolf said “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean that you have character”? Hamilton’s Grover might be the most fully developed character in “Kicking and Screaming”, but compared to his fellow actors Hamilton doesn’t create as much of a character.

7. Christopher Reed. His European student, the immortal Friedrich, is hardly in the film yet utterly indelible, egregiously pretentious and somehow still totally self-effacing. It’s a trick they should teach at the Actors Studio. “Two grapes!”

6. Olivia d’Abo. She affects a similar dialect to all the boys around her while simultaneously emitting an aura that suggests she is just slightly more emotional advanced if still struggling in her own way. Still, she never quite stands out, as it were. She’s good, yes, undoubtedly, but in terms of MVP, well, you’re left thinking that someone such as Jennifer Connelly could gotten this same job done.

5. Eric Stoltz. Implicitly captures a twenty-something elder statesman.

4. Parker Posey. Posey’s famed Face of Mock Bemusement is at supersonic; her patented “what the hell is wrong with you?” disinterest is at DEFCON 1. I have seven thousand favorite Parker Posey moments but “I use that fan all the time…all the time” is in the Top 2. She is younger than these doofuses but wise enough to know they’re full of shit.

3. Elliot Gould. As the main character’s Dad, one in the midst of a divorce, Gould has essentially only one scene and makes it count. He’s sad-eyed and reserved, the embodiment of what so many years can render, tired out and all too accepting of Cheez Whiz instead of cheese, the surest sign a man is worn to the nub.

2. Chris Eigeman. It’s quintessential Eigeman, an exemplary, exhausting accounting of a young adult fancying himself a sophisticated old man who knows full well his own faults yet tries to cover for it with erudite hauteur. When he gazes into the non-existent distance and remarks “I wish I was retiring after a lifetime of hard labor,” you know it’s the one thing he really, truly means.

1. Carlos Jacott. In the interviews Noah Baumbach conducted with the principal cast members on the “Kicking and Screaming” Criterion edition, both Eigeman and Hamilton concede that throughout filming they were convinced Jacott was walking away with the movie. His character is described as having two moods, “testy and antsy”, though Jacott plays him much more antsy than testy. And that antsiness is crucial tonic to the considerable churlishness of his friends. Jacott is funny, sure, in a brilliantly neurotic way, but through his neurosis he also communicates something distinctly humane. When he fails to read “All the Pretty Horses” (twice!) for his two-man book club, he’s not devious in trying to cover it up, he’s apologetic; he’s a slacker with the noblest of intentions.

Monday, October 05, 2015


As “Sicario” opens, a low rumble pervades the soundtrack, like thunder percolating in the distance. The picture comes up on the Arizonan desert as members of a SWAT Team dart in from screen’s right, a nondescript house their target. That low rumble grows, threatening, menacing and then... It explodes. An ARV smashes through the house’s wall. Shooting erupts. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), commander of a high-tech top-notch kidnap unit responding to a call, kills someone. But what they find isn’t what they expected. Dead bodies, rows of them, victims of a drug cartel’s vengeance, rot inside the home’s drywall. These thick-skinned agents bend over and vomit. And it gets worse when someone opens a trap door, detonating a bomb, taking a few of the good guys with it. Lucky to survive, Kate sits in the post-blast dust, dazed, and sees a severed arm on the ground. This is American soil but it’s like the opening of “Saving Private Ryan.” The War on Drugs is a nifty label; you can use it in stump speeches; you can put it on bumper stickers; you can say we’re “winning” it or “losing” it or anything in-between. But it’s all distant ambient noise compared to the high-watt screams of this sequence. This, “Sicario” is saying with a punch to the goddam gut, is your War on Drugs.

Working in conjunction with Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, one that favors keen subtext over explicit speechifying, Denis Villeneuve’s immaculate two hour film feels extraordinarily lean, packaged with nary a moment of dead air. His action set pieces are unfathomably intense, yet no less exhilarating for the way in which he genuinely, inexorably and breathlessly builds tension; he builds and builds and then…releases, quickly and viciously, maximizing the impact before barreling on. And if these and other events are brutal, he never glorifies the violence, giving us just enough sense of the carnage to grasp the enormous real world stakes and then cutting away. And “Sicario’s” photography, courtesy of the impeccable Roger Deakins, repeatedly ruminates in breathless images of the southwestern landscape, such as the red sun cutting through the low hanging clouds like arrows of flaming fire even as machine gun fire pops in the distance, nature’s beauty juxtaposed against the film’s ferocious anger.

Kate is our entry point this story of extravagant governmental murk and mire, enlisted to join a nebulous outfit captained by a guy whose position is vague but clearly high up, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, effortlessly rendering drug enforcement as dinner theater), introduced wearing flip-flops to a top level meeting, swift characterization that establishes his easygoing familiarity with such weighty derring-do that stands in stark contrast to Kate’s naivety. Played by Blunt with taciturn intensity, Kate is something of a cipher, but that’s deliberate rather than a writing failure. Matt ensures she has no family ties because he wants her to be a social nonentity. The film’s only real pause in momentum is a seeming cut-from-cardboard sequence of Kate going out for drinks that devolves into something horrifying. The horror, however, while conventional on the surface, expresses an existence where every personal relationship retains the possibility of being compromised. To lead her life, you inevitably see the world upside down, evoked in an indelible shot reflected in a coffee table of Kate at a delicate instant.

Physically, Blunt’s performance is rock steady. Her eyes, on the other hand, searching, skeptical, fearful, tell a dissimilar story, one in which confusion merely balloons by the moment; she’s down the rabbit hole. Normally a movie so devoted to withholding pertinent information from its protagonist would be guilty of a cheap ploy to prolong suspense; in “Sicario” it feels spot-on. Cryptic is the language of bureaucracy in this brave new world. Matt speaks in vacuous riddles. You keep waiting for Kate to transform into a fed-up ass-kicker taking names, the requisite unstoppable anti-drug action movie force. That doesn’t happen. The only real knowledge she gleans is the war’s continually moving boundaries. Anything goes.

Those moving goalposts pertain just as much to the movie’s narrative. If Matt seems the big cheese, that is proven partially illusory the more Kate gets to know his ostensible right-hand man, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). His intent, his attitude, even his nationality, shift scene to scene, and that elusiveness is personified most in his relationship with Kate, one that persistently re-sets. If you think they’re friends, they’re probably enemies, and vice-versa. Fifteen years ago Del Toro won an Oscar for “Traffic” playing a Mexican cop, Javier, caught up in the War on Drugs on the other side of the border. Alejandro may as well be Javier with a lot more mileage on him. If Javier was hopeful, Alejandro, played by Del Toro with a fiercely inscrutable poker face, is dark and doubtful, and the lines in his face unconsciously evoke the toil this border battle takes.

The “Traffic” comparison is imperative. Steven Soderbergh’s fine film encompassed all aspects of this unwinnable war, from corrupt Mexican cops to DEA agents stuck between a rock and a hard place to the drug war coming home to affluent America. “Sicario” deliberately takes a narrower approach, presenting the front lines rather than the fallout, money poured into the logistics and gear to maintain a fight where the finish line is an omnipresent mirage. One scene finds Kate descending into a drug tunnel beneath the border where yet another harsh revelation awaits. Emblemizing the entire film, she is made to burrow deeper and deeper, hoping to reach the bottom of this crusade, only to find the bottom repeatedly giving way to more layers, more and more, on and on into forever, etc. It's a cynical viewpoint, yes, but from that cynicism emerges a paradoxical clarity, the only kind that can exist in a conflict of such awe-inspiring ethical elasticity. The further she plunges into darkness, the closer she gets to seeing the light.