When I was younger, I thought John Sayles was one of the greatest living filmmakers. I unhesitatingly said Matewan was among my favorite five movies (yes, I had a favorite five movies, something that seemed immensely important to me at the time). I made a special trip to see Men with Guns when it was first released — I saw it during a matinee in West Newton, Massachusetts, and I was the only person in the theatre. It was a glorious experience.
But somewhere along the line, I began to re-evaluate Sayles's work. I saw all of his pre-Matewan movies, and they didn't really do much for me — I admired their intentions more than their results. I didn't quite know what to make of 1999's Limbo; I felt myself trying very hard to like it, because it was Sayles, but it took a lot of work to summon much enthusiasm for it. Then Sunshine State I thought was just terrible: flat, schematic, obvious, dreadful. Silver City was worse. Casa de los Babys I sort of liked, and certainly admired elements of, but it also felt generally minor and heavyhanded. I never got around to seeing Honeydripper.
I haven't watched Matewan for a few years now (partly because the DVD transfer is terrible and makes a mess of Haskell Wexler's cinematography). Nor have I revisited the other late-'80s/early-'90s Sayles films that I so enjoyed in my teens and early twenties (City of Hope, Passion Fish, Secret of Roan Inish, Lone Star, Men with Guns) because though most of them are still strong in my memory, I know that I would enjoy them less now than I did then, and I don't see any reason to lessen what were powerful cinematic experiences for me when I was more naive about both cinema and life.
Thus, I approached Sayles's most recent film, Amigo, with some hesitancy, because while I very much wanted to like it, I knew there was plenty of chance that I would not, and if I didn't, I would tempted to give up on Sayles forever.
But I ended up enjoying Amigo more than any Sayles film since Men with Guns. It's not a movie I'd put on any sort of top-ten list, but a number of scenes held at least a bit of the old magic for me.
Amigo is set in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century. (This is also one of the settings for Sayles's recent novel A Moment in the Sun, which I've got a copy of, but haven't yet had time to read.) It tells the story of a group of American soldiers who have to secure and maintain a remote village that is surrounded by rebels, a village where the citizens who have not themselves gone off to join the rebels are not necessarily thrilled to see the Americans arrive. As is typical of Sayles, we get to know a lot of members of the community and see the story through many different points of view.
It's a powerful setting for a writer/director/editor of Sayles's inclinations, because the war was a significant event in the history of U.S. imperialism, though one generally forgotten in the U.S. these days. It was not a war that was universally popular among U.S. citizens or soldiers, nor did it have particularly clear goals, and so there are lots of opportunities for Sayles to write his favorite sorts of scenes: basically decent people of different experiences and points of view colliding with each other. This is Sayles's best and worst tendency, the tendency that can lead to the clunky schematic obviousness of his narratives, but also the tendency that creates the most humane and touching moments in his work.
The worst obviousness of this sort happens in various juxtapositions between groups in Amigo where one group is doing something (playing cards, reading a declaration, etc.) and we then cut to another group doing the same thing. "Look!" the movie screams at us. "They're so alike! And yet they think they're so far apart!" Moments like that make sitcoms look like models of subtlety.
Similarly, Sayles sometimes likes to indulge in ridiculous coincidences and hamfisted irony. Amigo's ending is a model of this. It's one of the things that really holds Sayles's work back from attaining the compellingly unrealistic realism of, for instance, Robert Altman's best work. The coincidences and irony are forced, obvious, and not at all playful. Sayles is unerringly earnest, and the coincidences and ironies of his movies exist within such an environment of seriousness that their artificiality, instead of being admitted and celebrated, becomes a liability, like the mark of a smile on a stern pedagogue.
For his earnestness to work, Sayles would need to develop a different style, maybe something along the lines of Meek's Cutoff. His storytelling in Amigo, though, is more like that of solid, run-of-the-mill Hollywood movies in the 1940s, and so it doesn't convey the sort of effect he seems to strive for. I don't think he should change his style so much as his desired effect — personally, I much prefer the style of classical Hollywood to the oh-god-it's-so-real-feel-how-real-so-so-real-this-is-real-reality-real-serious-realness of films like Meek's Cutoff or Keane or, to a greater extreme, Gerry.
Despite all this, if you can put up with the clunkiness of the narrative, Amigo offers some real pleasures. When the story stops grinding its gears, there are some lovely moments captured by director of photography Lee Meily (using the Red digital camera). Sayles has also cast the film well, particularly in some of the smaller roles, and the actors are very good at quiet, genuine moments. They're not so good at bigger, emotional scenes, with one exception: a woman holding her dead daughter's corpse is, in terms of the narrative, calculated and clumsy, but the filming and acting are beautiful, because the actor is shot without a close-up, and she doesn't play it as a cliché of a shrieking, bereaved mother, but rather as someone suddenly traumatized and holding an amount of grief that is infinitely vast, and then it overwhelms her.
Bigness of emotion tends to lead Sayles toward flat caricature. Most of his movies include a couple of characters who are Really, Really Bad. Chris Cooper's character of Colonel Hardacre is one such figure. Cooper's gotten good at chewing scenery, but he doesn't really know what to do with this character other than bluster about. Who can blame him, though? There's not much else available to him in the script. Slightly better is the character of Padre Hidalgo, played by Yul Vazquez, but he just ends up being annoying and mysterious because, again, he isn't given room to be anything else. This is a much greater loss than the Colonel's flatness, because Hidalgo has enough of a role in the village to be a really interesting additional point of view, but mostly he just has to stand around looking peeved.
It's the minor characters who end up being most interesting. Their faces tell entire stories. The young people are especially interesting: the inexperienced soldiers, the adolescents who have joined the rebels, the children and young women who have remained in the village. (I repeatedly felt the film would be vastly better if all of the older characters were moved into the background and the younger characters were given more screen time.)
Which is not to say that the lead characters, played by Joel Torre and Garret Dillahunt are weakly conceived; they're not, and they carry the film well. Both actors are required to suggest quite a bit of their thoughts and emotions while also hiding those thoughts and emotions from the other characters — one of the concerns of the film is what leadership means in a time when everything is in conflict. How much do you reveal to the people around you? When is truth useful, and when can it get you and everyone you care about killed? How do you lead when any decision you make will be wrong? They're powerful questions, and they lead to some powerful moments in the film, ones that Dillahunt and Torre, especially, are well matched to.
For me, though, it was Dane DeHaan who really stood out, providing a subtle performance as a soldier who is young, naive, good-natured, and awkward. He uses his eyes brilliantly, conveying all sorts of thoughts through them, and Sayles is smart enough to let him tell a lot of the story through his gestures and subtle expressions. He has perhaps the most genuinely powerful moment in the film, when, lying on a cot, he turns away from a young Filipino woman he has had a crush on. His reasons for turning away are never stated, but we know of his conflicts, we've felt his shame and regret. In that moment of turning his head away, he has achieved an unfortunate maturity, a burden of living.
Perhaps what we should value in filmmakers like Sayles are such moments, rather than demanding an entire masterpiece. Plenty of other writer-directors don't take the time to craft such small, subtle, and richly human minutes, and so maybe it is enough to excuse him for all the narrative clumsiness. With Amigo, at least, it's enough for me.