on the borderline

louie carroll on the POLITICALLY engaged films of denis villeneuve

You might have noticed that the world is in a bit of an odd spot at the moment, politically, socially and culturally. For the most part, cinema reflects the context in which it is made. Whether that is older films portraying prejudices that we no longer deem acceptable, or more innocently using outdated special effects. However, while most cinema is a product of its time, it’s becoming increasingly rare for mainstream cinema to even obliquely reference a political viewpoint, at the risk of alienating part of the market. A recent example of this aversion to politics saw Tilda Swinton’s character originally Nepalese in Doctor Strange (2016) have her nationality changed so as not to draw the ire of the increasingly profitable Chinese market. The message was clear: there’s big bucks to be made there. Outside of the obvious examples like Oliver Stone, who never gets off his soapbox, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy is the most interesting series of films in recent years to deal with the political landscape in which it was created.

However, politically charged mainstream cinema has a new kid on the block, the incredibly prolific Denis Villeneuve. The most handsomely put together and engaging, grown up thrillers of the last five years belong largely to the French Canadian director. His English language debut Prisoners was messy but showed the promise to come. His two most recent films however, take it up a notch. In Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016), Villeneuve has put his finger directly on the pulse of the issues that have dominated the news headlines over the last eighteen months, in ways that are both abstract and more direct.

Sicario deals with America’s war on drugs, the Mexican Cartel versus the US establishment, told through the eyes of Emily Blunt’s naïve FBI officer, taken through the mill by her superiors. A better photographed film, you will not find, thanks to the work of director of photography Roger Deakins. On an aesthetic level, the film is excellent, ideologically, slightly less so. There has been a fight for the soul and identity of Mexico over the last two years in American film and television. The stereotyping of its citizens as drugs traffickers and rapists is one that ignited a swell of fear throughout the more ignorant factions of US society. Unfortunately, Sicario does little to assuage these anxieties.

There’s a scene early on in the film in which, following a police raid on a Cartel safe house in Arizona, the camera closes in on a bullet hole ridden wall. Beneath the plasterboard, the rotting corpses of cartel victims are revealed. This shot is a perfect summation of the film’s attitude towards the issue of Mexico: beyond the safety of the American border lies death, danger and the unknown. The xenophobic love-in continues when a convoy of American agents cross over the border to extract a Mexican gang leader. The music is ominous and the tension among the agents is almost unbearable. Upon arriving in the city they are greeted by decapitated corpses hanging from a bridge. “Welcome to Juarez”, Benicio del Torro’s mysterious Alejandro says to Blunt’s character, as if this is what the city is all about.

You almost get the sense that Donald Trump had watched Sicario just prior to descending his golden escalator to spew his bilious presidential announcement speech. You know the one, the one with the aforementioned “rapists”, line, the one that signaled the beginning of the rapid normalization of racism and neo-fascism in our culture. Yeah, that one. To top it all off, the film also has a strong whiff of sexism in how Emily Blunt’s character is treated, used and abused and largely passive throughout. In Sicario, Mexicans really are murderous and women aren’t really capable.

Arrival on the other hand couldn’t have…ahem…”arrived”, at a more prescient time. Released last month, it’s an alien invasion movie, in which the central premise emphasizes the need to communicate with those we think we can never understand. It’s about as appropriate a metaphor for the times we live in as you can get. Arrival feels like Villeneuve’s apology for his previous film. While Sicario plays to the audience’s fears, Arrival delivers the message thatone’s own viewpoint is not definitive, and there are always other sides to a story. Contrast the treatment of borders in Arrival with those in Sicario. While the Mexican border is fraught with danger, the barrier between the Aliens’ and humans’ is transparent glass, and both sides are able to reach out their hands in greeting.

The two films deal with the issue of Aliens, be they Mexican or extraterrestrial, however, their perspectives on the issue are worlds apart. In Arrival, Amy Adams’ linguist leads the efforts to understand the purpose of the visitors before humans do what they do best; destroy things. Villeneuve even goes so far as to demonstrate the dangers that arise when our will to communicate breaks down. The film ultimately has a relatively positive outlook on the human race’s ability to resolve its issues.

Sicario and Arrival can be viewed as two paths laid out in front of The United States, one fearful and isolationist, the other co-operative and optimistic. Judging by the orange turd that the American electoral system has just shat out, you could be forgiven for a lack of hopefulness for the latter.

We’re in the very early stages of figuring out what the cinema of a Trump era presidency looks like. The period spanning the election itself seems to have been it’s own cultural pocket, in which Villeneuve has covered the spectrum of popular opinion with this pair of films. While the Obama era was typified by an optimism and multiculturalism, reflected in the Academy Award’s best picture nominee line up (The Help and Lincoln to name a few). Ultimately, most mainstream cinema has failed to scratch below the surface to address the failing neo-liberalism and Bush-style foreign policies which have come back to bite them.

The United States no longer has a handsome face to mask its rotting core. Now they have the cheese-puff tinted monstrosity fitting of both their history and current place in the world. On a side note, the presence of the commander-in-chief in some capacity is a staple of most Alien invasion movies. However, the connotations of hearing that ‘the president is on the line’ have forever changed since the election of a petulant man-child. Bill Pullman and Morgan Freeman are no longer suitable candidates. From now on Gary Busey should be the only person allowed to play the president in movies.

Cinema that buries its head in the sand just isn’t good enough anymore. As the world descends further into the current malaise, film has a vital role to play in processing world events. Perhaps Villeneuve has answered the call and is now taking on his responsibility as a conduit for progress.