Irony and hardship often arrive simultaneously, a fact that Aid Across Borders workers can fully appreciate in Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s sublimely crafted A Perfect Day (2015), his first English-language Spanish film. Working in a remote part of the Balkans to free a corpse from a well and thus eliminate the threat of water pollution for the locals are Sophie (Melanie Thierry), B (Tim Robbins) and their leader Mambru (Benicio Del Toro). They soon learn all about the incongruency of humour inflicted by a turmoil that you either laugh at or cry in the face of.
A broken rope just as they near completion of lifting the bloated cadaver from the well leaves them exposed by their lack of resources. Attempting to procure another with the aid of their translator Damir (Fedja Stukan) turns into some ordeal as resentment and distrust from local communities keeps them at arm’s length. Along the way they encounter strategically placed dead cows in the middle of the road that may or may not be concealing explosives. They also pick up a young boy, Nikola (Eldar Residovic) who they save from bullies, and receive extra assistance from another Aid worker who also happens to be Mambru’s old flame, Katya (Olga Kurylenko).
Hypocrisy at higher levels of decision making and the often untenable separation of logic from a solution because of infernal reams of red tape form a significant part of the screenplay by Aranoa and Diego Farias, based on a novel by Paula Farias. But these become secondary to the characterisations which carry the film, providing it with texture, form and empathy in the shape of a fully fleshed out ensemble whose interactions are always dramatically engaging and often bleakly humorous. There are few dramatic flourishes or suspenseful moments or even a countdown to a major resolution. But A Perfect Day is no poorer in any way for this lack of attention to conventionality. It makes up for any superficial shortcomings with delicate, humourous interplay and a great deal of heart.
Aranoa’s lone dubious creative choice may be in saturating the soundtrack with a barrage of rock tracks though it’s hard to deny that certain choices, even if unsubtly deployed, prove effective. The acting is first-rate with the testy relationship between Mambru and Katya accounting for many of the film’s best scenes. Robbins has his best role in years as the carefree B, whilst Thierry is given a few memorable moments as the group’s newcomer, alternating between outrage, fright and bemusement at her co-workers’ often less than unorthodox methods of operation.
The macabre opening to Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015) establishes a grim, unsettling mood that will overwhelm the life of the young FBI agent leading the investigation. Still recoiling from the grisly find and images burned into her consciousness, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is specifically targeted for a new assignment under the care of task force leader Matt (Josh Brolin). Head still spinning she’s recruited to assist in the agency’s bloody, never ending battle with the Mexican drug cartels. Hovering close by at all times is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), his mostly silent, disconcerting presence barely acknowledged, and his status never qualified.
The world Kate becomes immersed in is confusing and disorienting. We see everything through her eyes and so must surrender to her distorted perspective through which motives are unspecified. She probes tentatively, intimidated by her junior status, but we share her sense of the truth being camouflaged behind the blurred lines of an indefinable moral code or method of operation. All her new cohorts are strangers – and male too, only exacerbating the alienation of her inclusion amongst their ranks.
Will the true nature Kate’s role resolve itself in tandem with clues to the bigger picture? Or is she merely a pawn in some strange, systematic manipulation from on high? For a long time Villenueve and his screenwriter Taylor Sheridan keep the horizon darkened with a range of potential outcomes. The set pieces are genuinely tense and superbly handled. In between, stillness is as vital a part of their storytelling means as chaotic motion. The suspense is stretched taut, creating a void of expectation, an immobility pregnant with possibilities.
The wavering figure in the margins, Alejandro, is an intimidating, mysterious figure whose past and present are being reconfigured in some vaguely illegitimate way it seems to Kate. Given half a chance to glower and speak without ever using words, Del Toro naturally exudes an impenetrability that can be as frustrating as it is magnetic. Blunt continues to bloom as an actress regardless of genre. This is a physically demanding role but full of grit and she makes Kate believable on every level. Brolin is strong too; Matt’s ambiguity makes him another fascinating figure, either a bastard conniving success to sweeten his own slice of the pie or a hard taskmaster protecting his taskforce’s most unlikely valuable asset. Another real asset is the animalistic menace of Johann Johannsson’s score which is used to brilliant effect in the set-pieces especially.
This is another superb addition to Villenueve’s impressive body of work. The French-Canadian director won international acclaim for his harrowing drama Incendies back in 2010. More recently he’s worked at an unflagging pace, delivering the gripping Prisoners (2013) and the equally compelling, creepily intimate Enemy (2013) in quick succession. With Sicario, his reputation as a meticulous craftsman is only enhanced. Though this is more about the truths between the lines and the machinations of a morally recast world of crime detection than deep characterisation, there’s genuine mastery in his handling of all the elements.