Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018)

I admire the Mexican indie horror Tigers Are Not Afraid for laying all its cards on the table before it even displays its title. Onscreen text explains that drug cartel violence has effectively left many Mexican cities “ghost towns,” with countless orphaned children left behind by the abducted & the murdered. Then, a classroom of children are assigned to write their own fairy tales as a creative writing exercise, just before that classroom itself is disrupted by gang violence & gunfire. In these opening moments we’re introduced to nearly everything the film has on its mind as a post-del Toro dark fairy tale about young kids navigating the seemingly empty streets cleared out by oppressive drug cartels. The “ghost town” descriptor from the opening text is made literal as the vengeful spirits of the cartels’ victims haunt the orphaned children & their deteriorating urban environments to the point where drug wars feel like an ancient, eternal Evil with no perceptible beginning or end. Tigers Are Not Afraid announces this grim scenario upfront in clear terms, but that does little to demystify the moment-to-moment discoveries of its horrific details. Hearing about it & dwelling in its consequences are two entirely different experiences.

Children not only carelessly play near dead bodies in the streets, but are literally followed home by the resulting blood, which moves with intent & apparent sentience. Recalling the fend-for-yourselves childhood narratives of George Washington, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Florida Project, and Nobody Knows, the parentless social structures established here sketch out a world where the only adults around are teachers & murderous drug dealers. Then the teachers disappear. The remaining kids are left alone in their own fight for survival against the villainous Huascas gang. Haunted by the ghosts of the dead (sometimes even the ghosts of their own families) as they call out for revenge, the kids find a balance between remaining under the killer cartel’s radar and re-establishing a semblance of justice in the world by striking back. Tales of cannibalism, Satanic rituals, magic wishes, and shapeshifting tigers complicate their understanding of the conflict, but their main concern is daily survival. An unorthodox domesticity emerges among the children in the rubble as they nomadically shift from one squat to the next, just outside the cartel’s reach. The ghosts of the dead call out for a climactic showdown between the warring factions, which is exceedingly dangerous, seeing how the children are outnumbered & outgunned.

While Tigers Are Not Afraid declares its entire dark fairy tale ghost story about drug cartels conceit upfront, it still leaves plenty of room to surprise in its details. Images of skateboards, rooftop dance parties, animated graffiti, pianos in flames, and ghosts seemingly made entirely of darkness establish an otherworldly urban aesthetic entirely unique to the picture. The film is also admirably committed to its own sense of brutality, threatening to destroy young children by bullet or by ghost without blinking an eye. Anyone especially in love with similar past works like The Devil’s Backbone or The City of Lost Children should find a lot worthwhile here, though there’s a specificity to the Mexican drug cartel context that saves the film from feeling strictly like an echo of former glories. The movie reveals few surprises in the execution of its initial premise except maybe the depths of its brutality, its willingness to incorporate conventional ghost movie scares into its fairy tale tone, and its commentary on how political corruption makes its grim world possible. I suppose its obedience to ghost story & dark fairy tale tropes elsewhere is what makes it a genre picture to begin with, but it finds plenty opportunity in its details to establish its own magical, nightmarish space.

-Brandon Ledet

Sicario (2015)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

One of the initial reasons I wanted to check out Sicario while it was still in the theaters was that during the film’s early press a lot was made about the fact that Emily Blunt’s protagonist was almost replaced with a male lead due to pressure from nervous producers, presumably because they believed that alteration would sell more tickets. I caught a clip of Blunt promoting the film on Stephen Colbert’s talk show where she quoted a producer as saying “If you make her a dude, we’ll up the budget,” a fucked up sentiment the actress backed up with, “Welcome to Hollywood.” This gross line of thinking gets more & more outdated every year, especially when you consider the recent success of female-led action properties like The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, Divergent, Lucy, and the list goes on. Hell, even Blunt herself outshone Tom Frickin’ Cruise with her action star prowess in last year’s Edge of Tomorrow. I initially had very little interest in Sicario based on its trailers, due to its drug cartel-busting subject matter & the promise of a relentlessly bleak tone, but I resented the idea that the film’s lead was once potentially going to be genderswapped to supposedly make more money. I resented it so much that I decided to support the film while it was still in the theater in the simple act of buying a ticket.

It turns out that the film is actually pretty good. I don’t have any particular fascination with the subject of drug cartels & border control outside of what I read about it in the news, so I’d usually be much more likely to seek out a trashier, goofier take on the topic like, say, the recent, grotesque Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Sabotage. Sicario is a lot more realistic than that ugly affair, following a multi-agency operation (mostly between the FBI & the DOJ) that seeks to shake up the status quo of typical drug raid protocol in an attempt to dethrone a couple of kingpin brothers wreaking havoc in Phoenix, AZ & Juárez, Mexico. The “war on drugs” becomes quite literal as Blunt’s law-abiding SWAT member goes on a Training Day-style tour of how much more effective it is for drug enforcement agents to break the rules entirely. In an attempt to get a leg up in an ongoing power struggle, the United States government essentially becomes a well-funded rival cartel, resorting to acts of kidnapping, torture, and assassination to get the results that the by-the-books drug raids simply aren’t. When Blunt’s protagonist pleads “What the fuck are we doing?” & “I’m not a soldier,” in protest of their far from legal war tactics, her helplessness as a pawn in the shakeup is alarming. Questionable authority figures played by Benicio del Toro & Josh Brolin intentionally keep her in the dark as they put her life in danger & overtly manipulate her into participating in human rights violations. At one point del Toro snarls, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand.” That last part may be true, but understanding is not the same as approving.

What Sicario does best is establishing a claustrophobic threat of violence. Early in the film a shootout in a tiny drug house reveals walls lined with dozens of corpses. Bombs go off unexpectedly. Dismembered bodies are strung under overpasses as warnings. Shootouts in traffic jams & underground tunnels cramp the audience into inescapable spaces riddled with gunfire. A tense, ominous soundtrack makes visual cues like night vision, Western landscapes, and blood running thin in shower water look impossibly alien. Much like how the recent Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass gets by purely on the strength of its acting, Sicario might be a mostly predictable film in terms of narrative, but it creates such a violent, foreboding atmosphere, that some scenes make you want to step out in the lobby for a breath of fresh air (or to puke, as the cops who discovered the early scenes’ in-the-wall corpses couldn’t help doing).

One thing’s for sure: no matter what your mileage with a serious action film centered on US/Mexican border drug cartels may be in general, Sicario would not have been at all improved by replacing Emily Blunt’s character with a male lead, no matter what a scumbag Hollywood producer would like you to believe. The few supporting roles played by men within the film are pitch perfect, especially in small character details like the way Josh Brolin turns the simple acts of whistling & chewing gum into unbearable grotesqueries or in Benicio del Toro’s delivery of cinema’s all-time most violent wet willy (that’s one for the ages, right there), but it’s Blunt’s performance that provides the film with the bulk of its pathos. Sicario is a fine film, but Blunt is a damn fine actor. It’s a testament to the characters of Sicario‘s director & writer, Denis Villeneuve & Taylor Sheridan, that they stuck with Blunt & didn’t opt for that promise of a bigger budget. The results were certainly worthwhile & hopefully it’ll help lead to idiotic propositions like that dying away forever.

-Brandon Ledet