The 68th Cannes Film Festival is really on a roll now.
On top of the rapturous reception for Carol and Pixar’s Inside Out — both instant Oscar contenders — comes another one in the space of 24 hours that deserves awards love in Lionsgate’s fall entry Sicario, a white-knuckle thriller that pulls no punches. Director Denis Villeneuve, on the heels of another memorable thriller two years ago called Prisoners, has now proven again he is the real deal to the tune of an enthusiastic seven-minute standing ovation at Tuesday night’s red carpet premiere (I clocked it). And not just for him (although this festival looks at directors as gods), but also for an exceptional cast who turned out tonight including Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin.
This story (which may remind some of Traffic but seemed closer in tone and ultimate impact for me to Oscar-winning The French Connection), dealing with the battle for dominance of an elite FBI task force against a powerful Mexican drug cartel, takes many different turns but is anchored by recognizable human beings caught up in circumstances that test their morality and survival skills to the limit in a very changed and dangerous world. Villeneuve is a director whose ability to stage thrilling, intricate sequences is almost without parallel right now, at least based on what has been seen at this festival so far. It is an astounding piece of direction.
When I talked to her at the Baoli Beach after-party, Blunt used the word “emotion” to describe what was happening in the action scenes they were shooting. She told me she had only been a new mother (to daughter Hazel) for four months when the film had to start shooting. She was inclined not to do it but her impression of Villeneuve was so positive, and well, how do you turn down this role? Blunt is the highly capable FBI agent who is really there at the center of this film. She is the conscience of the audience and it is simply the best, and most complex, work this fine actress has ever done on film. Last year she proved she could do action with the best of ’em on the Tom Cruise film Edge Of Tomorrow (or Live, Die, Repeat as it is also known now). She told me she was so impressed with Sicario cinematographer Roger Deakins, who would only give her his trademarked laid-back endorsement after a scene. “Yeah, it was good,” he nonchalantly would say expressing his approval. “That’s the way my dad would treat me too. I really liked it,” said Blunt. This role takes her career to a new level.
And for Del Toro, who is simply commanding and chilling as an agent exacting revenge in unconventional ways, it is a return to the kind of acting that won him an Oscar 15 years ago in Traffic. This role easily puts him back in that race for a second statuette. People will be talking about this one for sure. Wow. He’s also very good in The Perfect Day, a sales title that premiered in Directors’ Fortnight a few days ago — I liked that one too. So did Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, who attended tonight’s premiere, although he told me he doesn’t understand why the reviews on Perfect Day were not more enthusiastic. Quite frankly, if the business were dependent on critical reception in Cannes it would be all over. That movie is highly entertaining and some lucky distributor will pick it up. Tim Robbins is also very good in it.
As for Villeneuve, he seemed excited by the reaction to Sicario here but was totally modest when I caught up with him at the party. Actually he was more concerned with catching up with his own kids who were in Cannes with him. Without giving any spoilers, I have to say there is a “dinner scene” that he changed with an inspired, if risky, idea on the spot (from a great script by Tyler Sheridan) which is an instant cinematic classic. This guy is just very smart.
And thank god for Brolin’s world-weary FBI veteran. He gives the picture what flash of light it has and it is one of his best outings in awhile. He seemed like he was having a great time here in Cannes. He knows the drill.
Producer Basil Iwanyk ( The Town) came up to me at the party to say how much he likes his own movie. “I know that sounds strange, like walking around and saying how much I love my wife, but I feel this one is just something special, ” he said, pointing out the contributions of Deakins and composer Johann Johannsson as well as editor Joe Walker among others. Johannsson, who scored Prisoners and was recently an Oscar nominee for The Theory Of Everything, said he has a great working relationship with Villeneuve. Other producers are Black Label Media’s Molly Smith, Trent and Thad Luckinbill and Paris-based Edward McDonnell, who told me he originally had the project, pitched it to everyone, and was turned down by all until the ideal package finally came together.
Perseverance has paid off in spades this time. Audiences should turn out, but be warned it doesn’t hold back on the violence. It’s real and shot, by Deakins, almost like a documentary at times. Blunt was stunned when I informed her Deakins is a 12-time bridesmaid at the Oscars. “We have GOT to change that this time,” she said.
Lionsgate topper Rob Friedman was among those soaking up the accolades. The company, with Roadside Attractions, also has Gus Van Sant’s unfairly criticially reviled The Sea Of Trees in competition this year. Friedman has spoken to Cannes main man Thierry Fremaux about that reception: “Thierry thinks now it should have played later in the festival,” he said. Hopefully the company will be able to have the last laugh on critics who seem almost giddy to bring that film down. But hey, that’s Cannes.
Sicario, which in Mexico means “hitman,” opens in the U.S. on September 18 and just before that it is likely to turn up next at the Toronto Film Festival.