John Sayles’s human mosaics have always sparked hope for the salvation of American independent film. Yet in the last decade, the director’s historical importance and ambition have rarely equated to lasting, or even good, films. Sayles seems to be moving away from his love for subtext-driven examinations of regional experience and championing blunt leftist slants, outbursts of moral posturing that deaden the usual layers within his character interactions. The middling political satire Silver City and the heavy-handed drama Casa de los Babys border on ideologically stringent, and they force the viewer into submission instead of allowing the spaces and characters to exist freely. Only the wonderfully sublime Honeydripper holds any particular resonance when compared to Sayles’s excellent work in the 1980s and 1990s.
So, for many devoted cinephiles (myself included), Sayles’s latest film, Amigo, offered hope that the director would get back to the essence of communal exploration, this time in an audacious period piece set during the Philippine-American War in 1900. Contrasting religions and cultures once again plays a role for Sayles the writer, as a rural Philippine village becomes a hotbed of activity while occupied by an American army platoon hunting the rebel forces held up in the jungle. The recurring theme of bureaucratic power and manipulation gets communicated through three emblematic characters: Raphael (Joel Torre) the village “head man,” army Lt. Compton (Garret Dillahunt), and Padre Hidalgo (Yul Vazquez). All three men are tormented by duty and judgment, and Sayles defines each through complex moments of compassion and deceit. Together, they form a triangle of speculation, betting their people’s lives on future investments, betrayals, and victories. In this sense, Amigo analyzes the modern economic crisis in a far superior and interesting way than Oliver Stone’s overt sledgehammer of style, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
Sayles’s movies usually languish in the hum of a particular place, and so his visual aesthetic matches this stasis with a calm and collected observational style. This doesn’t hold true for Amigo, as the spectrum of movement between characters and action always impresses. Sayles uses a wonderfully fluid camera aesthetic to drift through the village, jungles, and caves with effortless precision. This approach gives each set piece, usually dialogue-oriented, a unique flow that situates levels of communication right next to each other. Language is superseded by posture, while facial expressions tell decades of family histories, regrets, and jealousies. Both the American soldiers (portrayed as mostly hickish farm boys) and the village collective eventually merge into the fabric of similar temporal spaces, finding a momentary harmony despite the brutal overtures by an American colonel (Chris Cooper) and the impending invasions of insurgents.
Unfortunately, as with much of recent Sayles, Amigo never really takes a stand. With all of its diverging personalities and hidden agendas, the film is never uninteresting, but often becomes wooden during key dramatic scenes. The thematic and symbolic impact of Amigo is gravely indebted to blatant allusions concerning the modern U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (water boarding, elections, insurgents), but the story and characterizations are strangely epic through specifically calibrated patterns of societal conflict. While not as proselytizing as Sayles’s worst films, Amigo certainly wears its political and social concerns on its sleeve. Raphael, in a particularly telling quip referencing democracy says, “If the Americans would go away, I’d like to try it.” The statement’s underlining notions resonate throughout Amigo, but usually become hindered by Sayles’s need to put a label on every motif. This comes to a head in the film’s final usage of its ironic title, as the rebels hand in their rifles for a small sum of money and leave the American table in freeze frame. Sayles is attempting to rewrite this forgotten history with a complex gaze at the moral quandaries plaguing every society in conflict, big or small. However, the human dynamism often falls short of this theoretical goal, and Amigo drifts into the history books an admirable but inert slice of necessary historiography.
AFI Fest 2010 ran from November 4 – 11. For more information, click here.