There’s a reason that the near-great Sicario: Day of the Soldado (Columbia, 6.29) has a 69% and 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, respectively. That reason is critics who don’t get it — specifically six who are strangely blind to the fact that this admittedly violent Mexican cartel film is not about nihilism and brutality as much as — hello? — parenting.
Which is why Soldado is not about unrelenting bleakness because it’s a film about a possibly better future, about Benicio del Toro‘s Alejandro Gillick influencing a pair of young Mexican teenagers who’ve been corrupted by the drug trade but might (one can hope!) be led in another direction.
Taylor Sheridan‘s story focuses on Isabela Reyes (Isabela Moner), the 15-year-old daughter of a drug cartel kingpin, and Miguel Hernandez (Elijah Rodriguez), a border-residing youth whom one of the cartels hires to be a “coyote” — a border-crossing guide for illegal Mexican immigrants. Both are forced to witness hellish scenarios throughout the film, and both arrive at a weary, contemplative finale. The viewer can reasonably infer that they’re both having serious second thoughts about living on cartel money. The agent behind this possible conversion is Gillick, a Mexican father figure of sorts. He’s certainly convinced Isabella to think twice about her father’s profession, and as the film ends he’s just beginning to influence Hernandez.
How the naysayers — Screen Daily‘s Tim Grierson, Indiewire‘s David Ehrlich, Movie Minute’s Joanna Langfield, N.Y. Daily News‘ Stephen Whitty, A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, TheWrap’s William Bibbiani — can watch Soldado and totally miss this teach-the-children aspect is beyond me.
From my own recent review:
“God, the current of cool malice, dead-center confidence and absolute cinematic command that director Stefano Sollima delivers — a feeling of purpose and absolute mastery of all the forces and currents, and with a Taylor Sheridan screenplay that gradually shifts away from drug-war brutalities to focus on humanism and compassion and saving children from horrible lives, particularly Moner’s character, a young daughter of a drug cartel kingpin (who’s never even seen!), as well as a poor border-town kid (Elijah Rodriguez) who early on accepts cartel money to work as a coyote guiding illegal immigrants across the Rio Grande.
“For a film that delivers scores of cold-blooded shootings and bombings amid bureaucratic malice or indifference, it’s quite odd how Soldado dovetails into a focus on south-of-the-border compassion and, strange as this may sound in a drug-war context, parenting. Really. Soldado slaughters people by the truckload, but it cares about kids.”