Thursday, August 25, 2011

Movie Review: Amigo

Amigo ***
Directed by: John Sayles.   
Written By: John Sayles.
Starring: Joel Torre (Rafael), Garret Dillahunt (Lt. Compton), Chris Cooper (Col. Hardacre), DJ Qualls (Zeke), Yul Vazquez (Padre Hidalgo), Lucas Neff (Shanker), Dane DeHaan (Gil), James Parks (Sgt. Runnels), Stephen Taylor (Private Bates), Bill Tangradi (Dutch), Rio Locsin (Corazon), Ronnie Lazaro (Simon), Irma Adlawan (Josefa).

The thing I have always admired about the films of John Sayles is how relaxed and unhurried they feel. Yes, his movies all have a plot – often times a complex one like in his best film Lone Star – but he doesn’t rush through them. He allows his characters a chance to breath, to develop at their own pace, and for the audience to get acquainted, not just with the characters, but with the surrounding Sayles immerses us in. His latest film, Amigo, has life and death decisions being made – has the threat of violence hanging over nearly ever scene – and yet Sayles smartly uses the same technique that has made him one of the most distinctive voices in indie film for the past three decades.

The film is set in 1900 in the Philippines, which is near the tail end of the war between America and that country – a war that began because of political interest in Cuba, and Spain’s influence there. Essentially, the Philippines are just a pawn in a game between two much larger powers. By the time the movie has opened however, America has essentially occupied the country, and is dealing fighting the insurgents, or revolutionaries, who live in the jungle and do quick hit and run attacks on the local villages that where American soldiers are staying. This movie is about one of those villages – and the impossible situation that everyone is put in.

Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt) is assigned along with his garrison of men to stay at a small village in the middle of the jungle – their mission is the keep the insurgents from sneaking up behind the larger force led by Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper). At first his men look suspiciously at the locals, but as the movie progresses – and very few attacks actually happen – they settle in with them. The “head man” is Rafael (Joel Torre), who the Americans dismissively call Amigo – because although he cannot speak English, there have been enough Spanish people around that he knows that word means friend, and he tries to convince the Americans that is what he is. It isn’t easy because the last remnant of Spanish control is a priest, Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez), who hates Rafael and lets his opinion be known to the Americans – and also tells them other secrets, like the Rafael’s brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) is the head of the local insurgency, and Rafael’s son has fled presumably to join them. But gradually, they do learn to trust Rafael, who has too much to deal with to really make trouble. He is in between a rock and hard place – if he helps the Americans, the insurgents will sentence him to death, but if he helps the insurgents, the Americans will kill him. He tries his best to make everyone happy, but of course that can only be sustained for so long.

I liked the easy feel that Sayles had for this material. Yes, it can easily be seen as an allegory for the current war in Iraq, but other than in a few moments where the dialogue is a little too on the nose (“we’re supposed to be winning their hearts and minds”), Sayles does not force this parallel, but simply lets it play out naturally. Instead, what he does is allow his characters room to grow and evolve – showing us them both in times of crisis and during times of leisure. The violence comes in the last act – and when it does it is quick, brutal and bloody – but Sayles concentrates more on the people being killed than the actual killing.

Sayles is an intelligent director, who has spent his entire career making the film that he wants to make. He doesn’t compromise and all of his films have a very distinct feel to them. Amigo may not be as good as Lone Star or some of his undeniable triumphs, but it is still a very good little film – and one that only Sayles could have made.

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