Soldado kicks off with a mass suicide bombing in Kansas after the cartels send Islamic terrorists across the Mexican-American border, a scenario that’s sometimes used to justify harsh immigration laws even though it’s literally never happened. CIA advisor Matt Graver’s (Josh Brolin) solution to this problem is to kidnap a child.
Wow. Wow, this is going to go there whether we wanted to or not. OK.
Graver’s plan is to kidnap Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), daughter of one of the top cartel bosses in the country, and set it up to look like another cartel was responsible, using their civil war to facilitate an invasion.
Soldado is a tough watch even when you ignore what’s going on in the world right now. There’s almost no action. Night or day, everything is the same ugly shade of blue, so it’s really tough to tell what’s going on at most points. Director Stefano Sollima seems married to these long shots that are effective when they can capture both action and reaction, but more often capture nothing happening at all. The late Johan Johansson’s iconic score from the first movie doesn’t kick in until Soldado’s final moments, leaving most of the movie silent. Viewers will find their attention drifting off toward the movie’s midpoint.
There’s a huge character problem here – there’s not a clear protagonist or antagonist or point-of-view character or story, really. The movie seems to want us to sympathize most with Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), last seen in Sicario raping prisoners and murdering children. Turning him into a romantic action hero is obviously difficult, and Soldado doesn’t really do it. He’s not introduced until about half an hour in, and even then he’s simply part of the false flag operation. He doesn’t really become an individual until the third act, when he refuses to kill Reyes and Graver comes after him, a confrontation that never comes to fruition.
That’s if you’re still thinking about the movie at this point. It’s not writer Taylor Sheridan’s fault, he didn’t know how close to reality this was going to be.
But you don’t get to not know.
There’s a lot of talk now, especially in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, about simply evaluating any work divorced from its context, about separating art from the artist.
There’s certainly merit to at least understanding any given work from this perspective. Bill Cosby was a great comedian. There’s an entire generation of comedians wouldn’t exist today without him. Way back in 1915, Birth of a Nation was so racist it resurrected the Ku Klux Klan, but its influence and place in cinematic history is undeniable.
But also undeniable is the human suffering that was caused by that film’s success and that man’s career. No matter how good their works of fiction and escapism were from a technical standpoint, it doesn’t somehow become more important than the off-screen reality associated with them.
Art does not exist in a vacuum. To divorce a piece from its context is to divorce it from everything that gives it meaning. If you insist on ignoring the history and pain woven into it, Pan’s Labyrinth is just a fantasy movie. It means a lot that Casalanca, one of the most powerfully anti-Nazi movies of all time, was released at the height of the Third Reich’s power in late 1942.
Sicario went out of its way to portray Mexico and Mexicans as victims of the drug war, both its country’s part and the U.S.’ There’s an ongoing effort in this very series to bring new voices to American audiences – Soldado was Sollima’s first English-language feature, and Sicario was Denis Villeneuve’s third following an acclaimed career of French films in Eastern Canada.
You don’t get to ignore the context. You don’t get to just not think about how this film relates to the world it’s been brought into. Soldado may only be related to the migrant crisis by coincidence, but I cannot watch it and not think about the real-life version of these events happening just a few miles away from me.
I’m going to Alvaredo to document and help protest the early-stage genocide the current government is perpetrating against Central American migrants, many of whom are children and refugees. I don’t even know if anyone will be there – the official protests are all at county courthouses, but Alvaredo is where ICE is, so that’s where I need to be. Political will has already shown to be a powerful factor in this crisis, there’s a chance we can still nip this at the bud.
Maybe I’ll see you there.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.