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As the perfect complement to Sunday’s viewing of the brain-dead Butcher Boys, I figured that I would go to the other extreme and watch a John Sayles film. I don’t think I could come up with two more polar opposites if I tried: Amigo definitely helped wash the mold from my brain.

Amigo-Phil-poster

Let’s get one thing straight, right off the bat: they don’t make ’em like John Sayles anymore. When I think of independent film, three names immediately pop into my head: Soderbergh, Jarmusch and Sayles. My first experience with Sayles came in the late ’80s, when I first saw The Brother From Another Planet. I’ll admit: I was hooked from the get-go. Here was a guy who somehow managed to mash together sci-fi, indie and message films into one delicious stew, creating not only a response to Spielberg’s ET (just two short years before The Brother…) but a powerful statement on the immigrant experience in America at that time (and now, to be honest).

After that first film, I devoured as much Sayles as I could get my hands on. The first Sayles’ film I actually got to see in a theater was Lone Star, which is also one of my favorites (perhaps these two things are related?) and I’ve made it a point to see whatever he deigns to release. Due to various outside factors, however, I’ve neglected to see his 2010 release, Amigo, until recently. As always, I only wish that I’d made more of an effort to see this earlier. Ah, well: better late than never, eh?

Set during the Philippine-American War at the beginning of the 1900s, Amigo is the heartbreaking story of what happens when the only available choices are bad ones. A small U.S. army regiment, led by Lt. Compton (Raising Hope’s Garret Dillahunt in an absolutely stunning performance) arrive at a small village in the Philippines, with the intention of occupying it and creating a U.S. garrison. The American soldiers have been getting hammered by Filipino guerrilla fighters and Col. Hardacre (Chris Cooper, so starched that he practically cracks whenever he walks) has charged Lt. Compton with securing the area.

Once there, Compton charges the villages mayor, Rafael, with assisting them in setting up the garrison. Rafael, dubbed “Amigo” due to his answer regarding his name, couldn’t be in a worse position: his brother is actually the leader of the guerrillas, his young son is part of the movement and the guerrillas have pledged to kill anyone who assists the Americans. On the other side, the Americans have pledged to make impossible for anyone who aids the guerrillas. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Rafael marches ever closer to his own oblivion, while his world falls apart around him.

First things first: Amigo looks absolutely gorgeous. Sayles has used his Filipino locations to excellent effect, providing a place that is equal parts paradise and Hell. There are some truly beautiful, long shots in the film, shots that are so composed as to be almost painted. To a man/woman, the acting is top-notch across the board. Particularly impressive (and surprising, at least to me) were the performances by Dillahunt and his Raising Hope co-star Lucas Neff. I don’t recall seeing these two in anything other than their TV show (despite Dillahunt’s impressive resume, I can’t recall him in anything else, including No Country for Old Men), so I had no idea what to expect. Neff has more of a bit part but Dillahunt really shines. Quite frankly, Lt. Compton and Rafael are the beating heart of the film, their performances complimenting each other perfectly.

In fact, it’s Lt. Compton’s journey from disrespectful Yankee to cautious supporter that gives the film some of its most powerful moments. In one key scene, Compton complains to Col. Hardacre that his policies for the villagers are too harsh: “I have to live with these people,” he complains. Hardacre’s response? “No, you have to make war on these people.” By the time the film reaches its terrible, but inevitable, conclusion, Compton is as much a part of the machine as anyone else, powerless to stop its destructive force.

At first, Sayles portrays the American soldiers in such a way as to make them seem almost cartoonishly callow and crude. They have no respect for the Filipino traditions or culture, seeing the natives as just another bit of fauna on the island. For a time, I was a little worried that Sayles would be taking the easy way out, shooting fish in a barrel, as it were. If the U.S. soldiers are just a bunch of obnoxious S.O.B.s, the audience will have no more connection to them than we would the villains in Die Hard. Luckily, Sayles has been doing this for way too long to ever take the easy way out: he knows that, more often than not, evil is just another way of pronouncing bureaucracy and good can be completely dependent on your present situation. Over time, the soldiers (for the most part) warm to the villagers, coming to see them as human beings, not just another extension of the enemy in the jungle. Compton even allows the villagers to throw a festival for their patron saint, much to the chagrin of Col. Hardacre.

If there can be understanding between the soldiers and the villagers,  then, can there also be an end to the armed aggression outside the village walls? Alas, Sayles is also too smart to sugarcoat this: mankind is made to destroy and destroy it shall. By paralleling the activities of the guerrillas in the jungle (including Rafael’s young son) with those of the villagers and American soldiers, Sayles shows us how fundamentally similar these groups really are. They’re each fighting for what they believe to be right and have no problem dying to support it. The big problem: the poor village is caught in the middle, no matter what. Help the Americans and lose your fellow countrymen…help the guerrillas and lose your life…essentially, the villagers are born to lose. Nowhere is this made more clear than the heartbreaking finale, where Sayles shows us that it is possible to both gain and lose everything simultaneously.

Despite how much I enjoyed the film, I do have a few (minor) quibbles with it. I felt that Padre Hidalgo, the captive Spanish priest, was just one mustache twirl away from being a silent-film villain. I realize that Sayles was making a point about the role of the Catholic church in the subjugation of the Philippines but the priest has so little humanity as to be almost a caricature. This same problem is repeated with the character of Col. Hardacre (and isn’t that name just a wee bit precious?), a human-like android whose programming only contains commands for “growl,” “snarl,” “snark” and “yell.” We’re allowed to see a tremendous, if subtle, growth in both Compton and Rafael’s characters, but both Hidalgo and Hardacre are as static as the day is long. It was also disappointing to see Sayles introduce and then drop (relatively quickly) the characters of the two Chinese laborers. For a time, these characters serve as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action around them and giving their own (admittedly skewed)  take on the proceedings. They exit stage left way to early, however, depriving the audience of a singularly unique viewpoint in the film.

Ultimately, however, these are very minor quibbles and really more a matter of my taste than anything else. The individual responsible for so many of my all-time favorite film experiences (the aforementioned Brother from Another Planet and Lone Star, the Return of the Secaucus and Matewan…even Corman’s original Piranha and The Howling, both written by Sayles) has come through once again. One of my favorite quotes from Sayles states that he makes the movies he does because no one else will. In my opinion, there can be no more noble or important reason to make films: may Sayles continue to impress and educate us for as long as we’re willing to listen.

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