Thursday, March 24, 2016

IN COLD BLOOD - Film Review

The public hazard in the kind of random violence that is occurring in our communities these days as part of the alarming upsurge of wild, neurotic crime is envisioned in terrifying images in the film Richard Brooks has made from Truman Capote's celebrated reporting of a Kansas murder case, In Cold Blood. This excellent quasidocumentary, which sends shivers down the spine while moving the viewer to ponder, opened at Cinema I yesterday.

Substantially, the film is a reenactment in electrifying cinematic terms of the essential events in the case record of that gruesome and mystifying crime in which four members of the modest Clutter family were slaughtered in their home near Holcomb, Kansas, by two ex-convicts, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, one night in 1959.
It is a faithful and absorbing demonstration of how the police, with very few clues and no initial inkling of a motive, patiently investigated the crime while the killers were boldly making an escape into Mexico; how the case was eventually broken, the killers fortuitously caught, then tried, convicted, and executed in a Kansas prison in 1965.

Since most of this is now common knowledge, thanks to the circulation of Mr. Capote's book, and since the culpability of the murderers is specified early in the film, the excitement generated in the viewer is not over who committed the murders, but why. Why did two who had originally intended robbery, and who had not committed murder before, suddenly come to the point of slaughtering four innocent persons in cold blood? And what does this single explosion of violence indicate as to society's pitiable vulnerability to the kooks that are loose in the land?

This pervasive concern with the natures and the backgrounds of the two young men who commit the murders and are therefore the symbols of the forces of evil in this dramatic scan accounts for the considerable alteration that Mr. Brooks has made in the substance and structure of Mr. Capote's book.

With a proper disregard for the extraneous, he has dropped out much of the detail of life in the community of Holcomb that Mr. Capote so patiently inscribed, and he has swiftly introduced his two marauders and brought them to the driveway of the Clutter home on that fateful night.

Then, with a rip in the sequence that is characteristic of the nervous style of the film—it is done with frequent flashbacks and fragmentations of continuity—he cuts to the interior of the Clutter home on the morning after the crime and the discovery of the bodies by the housemaid (but unseen by the camera), to her shrieking horror.

Thus the evident hideousness and mystery of what occurred is craftily withheld until the flow of the film has encompassed the investigations by the police, the getaway of the fugitives and their visit to Mexico (during all of which we are treated to grim reflections of their blighted early years), and their capture in Las Vegas, by an extraordinary fluke.

Not until they're brought back to Holcomb do we get in a confession by Smith, a graphic reconstruction of what happened in the house that awful night, and here Mr. Brooks exercises his most admirable skill and good taste. For without once actually showing the raw performance and effects of violence, the shooting and the knifing, he builds up a horrifying sense of the slow terror and maniacal momentum of that murderous escapade.

He makes us see the arrogance of the marauders, the astonishment and disbelief of the awakened Clutters, the fury of the robbers when they find there is no expected hoard of money, and the piteous terror of the victims when they know their lives are to be taken. But, best of all, he makes us understand, on the basis of what he has shown us about these hoodlums earlier in the film, why their wild, smashing outburst of vengeance is inevitable.

From here on, the course of the picture—the barely sketched-in trial, the languishing of the men in prison while their case goes through endless appeals, and finally their execution—is but the ironic playing out of society's ritualistic compensation for damage already done. The final scene of the hanging, which is realistically done, is like some medieval rite of retribution. It leaves one helplessly, hopelessly chilled.

I have not emphasized the vivid realism and literal quality of this film, which are the product of Mr. Brooks's sharp direction and the black-and-white photography of Conrad Hall; nor have I nailed down the subtle revelations and variations in the performances of Robert Blake and Scott Wilson in the principal roles. Their abilities to demonstrate the tensions, the torments, and shabby conceits of the miserable criminals, give disturbing dimension to their roles.

As dogged investigators, John Forsythe, John Gallaudet, Jim Lantz, and others manifest the terminal functioning of the law; Paul Stewart is dry as a reporter and John McLiam plays Mr. Clutter pitiably.

There is sure to be comparison of this picture with the controversial Bonnie and Clyde, which is also about two killers who are brought to their doom. That one, subjective and romantic, does not hold a candle, I feel, as a social illumination, to this one, which is objective and real.

Produced and directed by Richard Brooks; written by Mr. Brooks, based on the book by Truman Capote; director of photography, Conrad Hall; edited by Peter Zinner; music by Quincy Jones; art designer, Robert Boyle; released by Columbia Pictures. Black and white. Running time: 134 minutes.

With: Robert Blake (Perry Smith), Scott Wilson (Dick Hickock), John Forsythe (Alvin Dewey), Paul Stewart (Reporter), Gerald S. O'Loughlin (Harold Nye), Jeff Corey (Hickock's Father), and John Gallaudet (Roy Church).

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Sicario: Film Review

'Prisoners' director Denis Villeneuve returns with a blisteringly suspenseful, ever surprising cartel thriller.

Two years after making his U.S. debut with the crackerjack kidnapping drama “Prisoners,” French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve ups his own ante with “Sicario,” a blisteringly intense drug-trade thriller that combines expert action and suspense with another uneasy inquiry into the emotional consequences of violence. A densely woven web of compelling character studies and larger systemic concerns, Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s bleaker, more jaundiced riposte to Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 “Traffic” may prove too grim and grisly for some audiences and too morally ambiguous for others. But with its muscular style and top-flight cast, this fall Lionsgate release should score solid (if less than “Prisoners”-sized) business from discerning adult moviegoers, along with dark-horse awards-season buzz.

In a terrific performance that recalls the steely ferocity of Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs” and Jessica Chastain in “Zero Dark Thirty,” Emily Blunt stars here as Kate Macer, an FBI field agent who has been forced to don a Teflon exterior in order to rise through the Bureau’s male-dominated ranks, and to cope with the depravity she frequently witnesses in the line of duty. “Sicario” begins with one such grisly find: dozens of rotting human corpses hidden behind the drywall in a suburban Arizona home belonging to an arm of a powerful Mexican drug cartel. But the carnage doesn’t end there, and when the next round of violence erupts with startling force, it sets the apocalyptic tone for everything that follows. Indeed, the opening of “Sicario” unfolds at such an anxiety-inducing pitch that it seems impossible for Villeneuve to sustain it, let along build on it, but somehow he manages to do just that. He’s a master of the kind of creeping tension that coils around the audience like a snake suffocating its prey.

Together with “Prisoners” and Villeneuve’s previous, Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” “Sicario” forms a loose trilogy about the politics of revenge and the value of a human life. But whereas those earlier films were panoramic in scope and choral in structure, “Sicario” unfolds almost entirely through the eyes of Kate, as she wades into the murky waters of an inter-agency task force assembled to give the U.S. a tactical leg up in the war on drugs. Helping to draw her in is Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a sandal-clad, stoner-cadenced mystery man who claims to be a Defense Department contractor, though Kate and her partner (Daniel Kaluuya) suspect from the start that he could be CIA. Like more than one character in “Sicario,” Graver can claim almost as many identities as he can ulterior motives.

Graver tells Kate that his operation needs her unique expertise, and while she isn’t fully convinced, she’s still young and naive enough to believe that there’s a right side in this war and that the U.S. is on it. Riding shotgun with Graver is another shadow man known only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) — the “sicario” (a slang term for hitman) of the title — who is said to be a former Mexican prosecutor, and who has the solemn intensity of a man determined to get his way or die trying. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do,” he tells Kate matter-of-factly on their first meeting — words that double as advice to the movie’s audience.

The knotty plot that follows demands close attention but never becomes too difficult (or self-consciously opaque) to follow. It involves multiple trips back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border as the agents attempt to use one high-ranking cartel boss (Bernardo Saracino) to flush out an even bigger one (Julio Cesar Cedillo), though exactly why is a crucial detail “Sicario” holds close to the vest until late in the third act. In the meantime, Villeneuve stages one extraordinary suspense setpiece after another, starting with an epic traffic jam at the border that ensnares the Americans just as they are heading back home with a piece of very precious cargo in tow. Using no special tricks — just the sharp, color-saturated compositions of cinematographer Roger Deakins; the airtight cutting of editor Joe Walker; and the subtly menacing score of composer Johan Johannsson — Villeneuve creates a sequence as nail-biting as any “Fast and the Furious” car chase, except that here all the cars are standing perfectly still.

As in the films of Clint Eastwood (whose “Mystic River” exuded an obvious influence on “Prisoners”) and Michael Mann, the violence in Villeneuve’s work is savage and startling, but never overstated or sensationalized, and every bullet fired ripples with consequences for both the victim and the trigger man (or, as the case may be, woman). Navigating the crossfire, Blunt is mesmerizing to watch, her intense blue eyes ablaze with intelligence as she tries to sort out the facts of the case from its attendant fictions, and whether Graver and Alejandro’s endgame justifies its ethically dubious means.

Every bit as impressive is Del Toro, who has worked both sides of the street where cartel dramas are concerned (“Traffic,” “Savages”), but whose Alejandro is cut from considerably more complicated cloth. He is a swift, unforgiving man, with a wolfish jowl and the preternatural calm of the predator lying in wait. Yet he also shudders in his sleep, reveals flashes of battered humanity when one least expects it, and even, fleetingly, a Hannibal Lecter-ish lust for the flinty young woman thrust into his path. And as the film hurtles towards its climactic abyss, it is Del Toro who holds us rapt with a nearly silent performance that is the very embodiment of character through action.

Working with a mix of technical collaborators old and new, Villeneuve has once again delivered an impeccably well-crafted film, not least in Deakins’ arresting widescreen lensing, which alternates between vast aerial canvases that capture the epic sprawl of the border land, and closeups so carefully framed and lit as to show particles of dust dancing on a shaft on sunlight.

Film Review: 'Sicario'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, May 7, 2015. (In Cannes Film Festival — competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 121 MIN.


A Lionsgate release presented with Black Label Media of a Thunder Road production. Produced by Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill. Executive producers, John H. Starke, Erica Lee, Ellen H. Schwartz.


Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay, Taylor Sheridan. Camera (color, Arri Alexa HD, widescreen), Roger Deakins; editor, Joe Walker; music, Johan Johannsson; executive music producers, Tara Moross, Darren Blumenthal; production designer, Patrice Vermetter; supervising art director, Paul Kelly; art director, Bjarne Sletteland; set decorator, Jan Pascale; set designer, Ricardo Guillermo; costume designer, Renee April; sound (Dolby Digital), William Sarokin; sound designer, Tom Ozanich; supervising sound editor, Alan Robert Murray; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Tom Ozanich; visual effects supervisor, Louis Morin; visual effects, Oblique FX, Fly Studio, Cinesite; special effects supervisor, Stan Blackwell; stunt coordinator, Keith Woulard; associate producer, Emma McGill; assistant director, Donald L. Sparks; casting, Francine Maisler.


Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo, Bernardo Saracino. (English, Spanish dialogue)