BY PHIL ANTHONY
This piece was originally published on the first incarnation of St. Jane Media.
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation follows superspy Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as he tracks down a shadowy organization called the Syndicate. When Congress shuts down his spy agency, Hunt must dodge his own government as well as trained assassins in his quest to neutralize the mysterious man pulling the Syndicate’s strings.
Sicario takes place on the American border with Mexico. Kate (Emily Blunt) is chosen to join an interagency task force ostensibly trying to locate the reclusive leader of one of Mexico’s most savage drug cartels. As the task force begins playing in grayer and grayer areas, Kate struggles to orient her moral compass in a world of violence, terror, and lies.
Both films present us with an ethical quandary: when one is convinced extraordinary danger will soon rain down on innocent lives, is it really important whether one follows all the rules in stopping that danger?
In MI:RN, Ethan’s total disregard for rules, laws, and ethics is portrayed as a fun, madcap adventure. Ethan is a charming one-man army blessed with an array of gadgetry that is essentially magic, in the Arthur C. Clarke sense. The camera bounces merrily from Vienna to Morocco to London, the action is crisp and the combat bloodless. Everyone’s just here to have a good time. The film pays lip service to the gravity of breaching federal and international law, but the glee with which the film presents these breaches betrays a disdain for stuffy politicians and stifling accountability. The set pieces are audience-pleasing and never yield consequences that would spoil the amusement.
Sicario, on the other hand, is a horror film. There’s nothing fun about Kate’s slow descent (at times literally) into the world of cartel violence; the film’s inciting incident is the discovery of mummified bodies walled into the home of a cartel property in Arizona. The film’s violence has consequences, blood flows from ragged wounds, and Kate’s gunshots lacerate the sonic space with finality and cruelty. Every inch of this world drips with tension and menace, thanks to Johann Johannson’s oppressive, (flawlessly) droning score.
Far from the sugar rush of Mission Impossible’s photography, Roger Deakins lets the camera hang like an apparition, sweeping slowly along a Central American horizon struggling with natural grandeur weighed down by human ugliness. In one unforgettable shot, Delta Force operators backlit against the sunset don helmets that turn their silhouettes into horned demons as they descend a hillside, melting beneath an oily horizon. The film looks the way Cormac McCarthy reads. This is not an adventure; this is a nightmare.
The horror comes not only from the grim reality of life in cartel country but from Kate’s growing lack of control as her team (made up of U.S. Marshals, Texas Rangers, and some Department of Defense “Advisors”) operates further and further out of sight of their supervisors, further and further away from any accountability. Denis Villeneuve expertly builds a world in which the abhorrent savagery committed by The Other in the land of Over There only highlights the dread that comes from seeing one’s own tribe abandon the rule of law that makes Over Here so great, the dread that comes from the nagging question, “If my side is willing to do this, what won’t they do?”
The tension between MI:RN and Sicario is a perfect window into the tension between America’s two selves. We cultivate a self-image veiled in law and order and basic human decency. Yet, we want to see evildoers get what they deserve and not mocking us as they hide behind bureaucracy and conniving lawyers. These films allow us to live the fantasy of the swashbuckling do-gooder saving the day, to face the horror of a deep state untethered from accountability swallowing up decent people, and to interrogate what we can really live with.
Sicario – 5/5 Stars
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation – 3/5 Stars