Directed by Denis Villeneuve | Written by Taylor Sheridan | 121 min
Kate (Emily Blunt, convincingly tough and vulnerable) is a straight arrow FBI agent on the anti-kidnap squad working in Arizona with partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, another talented Brit import), mopping up at the margins of the Mexican drug cartel business, which usually means busting into their safe houses and uncovering evidence of grisly murders long after the fact.
She’s invited to participate in an inter-departmental task force—where the specifics of that other department are vague—led by flip-flop wearing dude Matt (Josh Brolin at his douchiest), with mysterious consultant Alejandro aka “Medellin” (Benicio Del Toro, threatening) along for the ride. On the first day she’s part of a convoy across the border into Juarez, way outside her jurisdiction as an FBI agent and way outside her depth as a law-enforcer.
This is Quebec director Villeneuve’s most fully realized English-language feature, following the clumsy-but-intense drama Prisoners and Kafka-esque, Toronto-set weirdie Enemies. Through Kate’s perceptions we start to grasp how her cowboy colleagues are cracking down on the criminal organizations to the south by bending, and occasionally breaking, the rules of international law. Is her comparative stringency naive or the last bastion of honour and order in this chaotic paramilitary environment?
What lifts the film into the upper echelons of this year’s Hollywood product is Villeneuve’s art-house approach to genre. The poetry in the camera movements (with much credit to hero DP Roger Deakins); lingering on a stormy sunset, the textures of the desert from above, and shooting a tunnel operation in alternating infrared and night-vision. It creates a queasy tension, the pacing gradual while the violence comes on sharp and unexpected, cut with a bowel-shaking score from Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Tonally, it would make a potent white-knuckle double-feature opposite the modern classic that is Zero Dark Thirty. Not because it happens to be a powerful thriller with a female lead, but because of the thematic parallels. It asks questions of its audience very similar to the ones posed in the Bigelow picture: Where do you draw a tactical line when the enemy is the devil?