Companion Pieces · Film Talk

Companion pieces – Sicario and Hell or High Water

I’ve had an idea to look at two films that compliment each other, or make good back to back watches and having just re-watched Sicario for the umpteenth time (it’s easily my most watched of the last 5 years), and Hell or High Water (shamefully my first viewing) that these films, both penned by Taylor Sheridan were a great talking point. I’ve got plenty of others lined up too, perhaps some that are less obvious, but I really like finding similar messages or ideas in film and opening them up for discussion.

It’s hardly a secret that Sicario sits firmly in my top five all time favourite films. I put it in there pretty quickly after having first seen it, in an empty cinema screen, as I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’d be sat at work, sifting through emails and a shot or a piece of music would come back to me. I sat quietly as the credits rolled in the screen, happy to let it wash over me before moving. Now close to having watched it a dozen times, I love it a little bit more each time I watch it, always something new to spot or ponder afterwards.

A film that hits you hard from pretty much moment one, much like the tense soundtrack. I’ve covered this aspect before when I looked at why the world wasn’t talking more about Denis Villeneuve (given Arrival’s rather tame number of Oscar nominations, I still stand by this too) but it’s brilliant. It has you on edge from the opening beat and shot and it rarely lets us. That’s been most impressive to me, that even though I know what’s coming at every turn, I still feel like as the end credits roll, I seem to feel my shoulders psychically relax and I let out a sigh. That feeling hasn’t changed.

Sicario has a very, very clever script too. Handsomely directed by Villeneuve, brought viscerally to life by the ever wonderful Roger Deakins, it’s a dream trio you could say. Sheridan’s writing keeps things from ever being truly black and white. There’s so much grey and murk in both the story and the characters that while it’s not an entirely true story, it’s utterly believable and reflective of what real life is. It’s tackling big subject matter too, exploring the drug business and the matter of cartels and how that world is creeping ever further up into America and is no longer just resigned to Mexico and the American border. It starts off the narrative with a lot of questions and while we’re shown things that can help us make our own conclusions, it’s most likely that at the end of the film you’ll have just as many questions, if not more. Not least in the characters you’ve spent two hours with. It’s an interesting approach by Sheridan because in most films, the central characters go on a journey, there’s an arc to them or their story. Not so much here.

Take Kate for example, brilliantly portrayed by Emily Blunt. Props to Sheridan for being so determined that his role written for a female, he fought to remain that way where some almost certainly wanted it to be changed to a male. She’s crucial for us as viewers. She’s our eyes and ears into a sprawling, complicated world of rules that are seemingly bendable and lines that certainly get crossed. We know early on that she’s trying to do the right thing. That’s first signalled where, at the house of horrors, she’s asked what they should say to the press and she simply responds with ‘The truth’. For Kate, it all seems very black and white. Right or wrong. Obviously as the film progresses, that’s less and less clear and it’s a similar journey for us as audience members. Ultimately though, her views don’t change. She wants to do the right thing, the right way and she does…mostly. It just becomes a little blurry. So she doesn’t hugely change, she’s just exposed to more and left wondering ‘what now’ at the end.

It’s a similar story for our other two main characters, Matt, played by Josh Brolin, and Alejandro, portrayed by a scene stealing Benicio Del Toro. Neither experience that traditional arc, they are what they are from the outset. Like it or not. Interestingly, we meet Matt just as we’re convinced that Blunt’s Kate is pure, one of the good ones. We’re given clear, quick indications that Matt may not be. In a room of smartly dressed men, he stands out like a sore thumb. Casually dressed and wearing flip flops, feet up on the table. It’s a warning sign if ever there was one that he isn’t afraid to break/bend the rules and to do things a different way. Oddly though, as a viewer, my brain still told me to trust that both Matt and Alejandro must be good to an extent because they work for the government. They’re supposed to be people we trust. That’s a point I’ve pondered a lot.

Interestingly though, despite a lack of arcs, I found my feelings towards Del Toro’s character changed from a first viewing to the second. He’s absolutely brilliant in this role. From the minute we meet him, he stands out. He’s quiet and mysterious at first but clearly respected and high up from the way he’s suited and the way others treat him. I went from being disappointed in his actions in the cinema, to being pretty much onboard with them by my second watch. I understood more of where he came from, even if I had a lot of questions left. I wanted to know more. That of course bodes well for Soldado, which should focus on Matt and Alejandro and presumably, how they got to be working together? With Sheridan on board, it’s one of my most anticipated.

The film closes with two scenes, both of which are perfect in their own way. A threat started early on, surrounding a soccer-obsessed child, is completed as the child takes to a football pitch where gunshots ringing out only cause all to momentarily pause before getting back on with the game. It’s a simple scene, with a haunting score, but so incredibly powerful. It’s tragically sad too, particularly after watching the violence unfold as we did, that even doing something has seemingly made no difference, it’s just made it worse. It re-opens that question of, would the ends justify the mean, particularly when it seems like such an unwinnable war? Although as Brolin’s character makes clear, they don’t expect to resolve it, they just want it to be controllable. Both are sad thoughts.

The other scene being that we get some kind of closure between Alejandro and Kate. Their relationship is a fascinating one throughout. He very quickly shows compassion and a caring side towards Kate, going as far as keeping an eye on her, which pays off at one point. He mentions that she reminds him of somebody he cared very much about. Initially, I wondered whether he meant his wife or daughter. More recently, I wondered if he also saw a former version of himself in Kate, that he was once in her shoes. It’s an ending between the two that says so much despite using so few lines. Of course, Sicario shows a world where operating in black and white, across countries with many layers of jurisdiction, just wouldn’t work. So you’re left to decide if the line/s that are crossed are worth it, or if all that violence and rule breaking was for nothing. The beauty of this? I’ve thought about it all for hours and I’m still not sure.

Then there’s Hell or High Water. It tells a very different story of modern America. It goes more inland, away from the border and into vast, expanses of Texas. Where Sicario made use of crowded places like Juarez and the border traffic jams, HoHW has endless fields, one house dotted here or there against an expanse of grass and sky. It has a feeling of a place that’s almost been forgotten about. It’s a film about the American dream in many ways. Of poverty, of lost industries and about those trying to survive. It’s a very big, real problem in America. In Sicario, the banks are all too happy to take drug money into their accounts, so is their greed. Here, that same greed sees them repossessing family homes and businesses. Putting those struggling into even worse positions.

I mentioned the American dream, but it’s equally a look at capitalism and the economic crisis. In Sicario, it explores how the drug business makes those involved very rich, but those caught up in often poorer and much worse off. With Hell or High Water, the exploration is smaller scale, focused in one particular area with one family. It’s clear that jobs and money are both hard to come by, yet in each tiny town stands a bank. To those on the bread line, as it were, I can only imagine how much harder that makes it. Perhaps the bank who reclaimed your home, or who lost your money in the financial crisis, yet stand there untouched. It’s an opposite approach perhaps to Sicario. That looks at the power the government have to bend the rules, to cover things up where they consider themselves to be making a difference. With HoHW, it looks at those who have suffered because of the rules, or the capitalist system that favours the rich. They stand together incredibly well as a look at modern America.

Again, the theme of do the ends justify the means are explored. Perhaps here more questions are answered than the new ones raised, unlike Sicario, but it still never preaches. It gives you characters that are easily likeable or not depending on your moral stance. The chances are you’ll side with them all to an extent. Again, to each of them they’re doing the right thing, just like the aforementioned film’s protagonists. Again, not so much of this is black and white, it’s a whole lot of murky and things only get murkier as the film progresses and things spiral out of control. Both films explore how even if things start with best intentions doesn’t mean they’ll end well.

The family themes in Hell or High Water are more obvious than in Sicario, but similar themes are explored. Both feature loss and how one copes with that. For Sicario, it’s revenge is perhaps but more brutal but revenge, or salvation, is what drives the brothers. To do something positive in their mother’s memory. The two brothers are excellently played by Chris Pines and Ben Foster. They make for believable siblings too, trying to reconnect and put their own differences apart. You can put yourself in both sets of shoes though. It’s easy to see why Alejandro did what he did, and with the brothers. Both perfectly explore the theory that any action has a consequence and that you have to live with those.

One thing I particularly enjoyed in Hell or High Water was its use of small, bit-part characters. Sheridan is incredibly balanced in putting together the screenplay, meaning neither film feel like they’re preaching what is right or wrong at you. However, those with one or two lines only in HoHW are as close as the writing comes. It feels like they represent the viewer though. Take the diner scene for example, where a waitress is talking to Jeff Bridges (who is on top form) Texas Ranger, knowing she’s met the brothers and also wanting the tip they left. Her passive-aggressive approach is telling us that money and looking after one another are more highly regarded than the law, which they clearly feel does little to help or protect them. The Ranger faces a hostile in general approach and you can tell from his own reaction that while he may sympathise, he’s still got to do the right thing. He’s equally dealing with loss here too.

Yes, perhaps the similarities here as because both have a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. He considers them to be two thirds of a trilogy, one he called a trilogy of depression, the third yet to be seen in the UK, but an exciting prospect if it’s even half as good as either of these films. He’s got an eye for a story, for conveying a message about modern America while never preaching. I was left feeling after watching both that fixing either issue is a long way off. Both seem so big, so unwinnable. The only certain thing is a lot more death, poverty and unhappiness in both scenarios.

If you’ve not seen either film, but like a story that makes you think, that doesn’t spoon feed you or preach to you; check either of these out. Both, in fact. Both are fabulous standalone films, but they make a fascinating double bill exploring some of the downsides of the modern world, and of modern day America.

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