Sony // 1997 // 128 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // November 13th, 2003
Come find a place where "men with guns" do not go.
Beautifully shot through numerous rainforests of Mexico, Men With Guns is a curveball of a film from director John Sayles, who always manages to be unpredictable in subtle ways. The slow pace may drive away the occasional viewer; those who stay, however, will be rewarded with a complex and layered film that is profound, deep, subtle, and spiritual.
Dr. Fuentes is a man in search of his legacy. A doctor in the capital city, he was the head of a program to train students as doctors to work in impoverished native villages deep in the rainforests. However, growing doubts begin to tear at the fabric of his life, and the harsh realities he long ignored begin to manifest.
One day, he sees a former student selling drugs on the street. The student is bedraggled and insolent, a very different person from his experiences in the jungle, whatever they were. He tells Fuentes that many of his students had been killed, but offers little explanations.
Riddled with questions, Dr. Fuentes soon sets off into the jungle, to seek out the remote villages where his protégées work. Every village he visits, he finds no trace of his students -- he finds burned bodies, destroyed villages, and rampant poverty. In the jungle, a war is being fought between the army and the guerrillas. And in every village, he hears the same thing -- "men with guns" took his students away. But which men?
Determined to seek a resolution, he goes deeper and deeper into the jungle. But the further he goes, the more he sees; the more he realizes the world is a harsh, violent place, and the realities long since ignored are suddenly all too real -- and deadly.
Men With Guns is an oddly moving, melancholic meditation on a range of remarkably complex ideological and spiritual issues from director John Sayles, who took a small budget, a foreign crew, and went into the heart of southern Mexico to make a movie. Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi) is the main character, of course, and most of the film speaks through him, but numerous other characters (categorized in the credits as "The Travelers") join him along the way, and each brings their own baggage and questions to the table.
Fuentes himself is a doctor in search of a legacy, in search of something to leave behind. He is old, his health is failing, and he wants to be remembered. A priest who he finds in the jungle is fleeing from his shameful and violent past as a padre in a local village -- he knows loss, he knows sin, and he should have the answers to the spiritual questions plaguing the film. But he searches for answers the same as the rest, if not harder. A mute girl, raped many years ago by army men who invaded her village, desperately seeks a place where she can be happy, away from men with guns. A young boy, homeless, parentless, seeks survival, and will go anywhere to find it.
A soldier takes Fuentes and his companions hostage by gunpoint, takes their money, and flees. Soon, he comes back with a gunshot wound, and orders Fuentes to remove the bullet. The soldier, who has been excommunicated from the army for losing his rifle, is a fugitive, a dangerous animal. He is desperate and disgraced, but he seeks the same as the rest -- a sense of permanence, of forgiveness.
There are no clear answers in Men With Guns. All the characters search for forgiveness, but in the jungle, there is nobody to give it. In fact, Fuentes cannot even determine what happened to his students -- only that "men with guns" took them. When he runs into an army village, the soldiers treat him with civility, and denounce the rebels. When he runs into a pocket of guerillas in the deep jungle, they treat him with civility and denounce the army.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is that the location Men With Guns takes place in is left purposefully ambiguous. Filmed in the south of Mexico, at the very least, it is allegorical in its references to Columbia, Guatemala, and even Mexico itself. The film is a search for a place where white people never go, a place where "men with guns" do not go -- so the beauty of it is, of course, that the actual physical location does not matter. The ultimate success of that particular endeavor, of course, is the spiritual heart of the film, and I shall not spoil it here.
Ultimately, Fuentes and his compatriots begin searching for a mysterious village that both the army and the guerrillas speak of -- a village hidden so high up on the mountain that even helicopters cannot locate it. Here, Dr. Fuentes hears tell, the last of his students, a young woman, may be. Here, the mute girl hears, is a place where there are no "men with guns." Here, the ex-soldier learns, is a place where nobody can find him. It is a place where they can be absolved of their sins, a place where they can be free -- a paradise. This is the primary motivation behind their actions, to seek a sense of faith, to seek forgiveness for their sins, whether intentional or original.
It is a tragic thing to watch Dr. Fuentes stumble through the jungle, completely out his element. He is so astonishingly naïve that despite his wealth and affluence, he is someone to pity; the more he struggles with his nature, the more it struggles back to throttle him. The film is awash in visual and metaphorical imagery, and director Sayles packs the film full of symbolism as deep and lush as the jungle in which the film is shot. The story is meticulous and compelling, and the acting is both moving and passionate.
The audio in Men With Guns is recorded quite nicely, and the Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation is quite strong and full. The soundtrack, a wonderful cornucopia of rich Spanish guitars and wood blocks, perfectly harmonizes with the lush jungle settings. The sounds in the film are magnificent -- the barely perceptible buzz of the rainforest hums and haws, birds chirp in the distance, and every word of dialogue is crisp and clear. The majority of the dialogue in this film is Spanish, and the subtitles are concise and accurate.
The director's commentary track is one of the strongest features of the DVD in terms of content, and also by default; it is the only extra feature included. Director John Sayles speaks at great length and gives a thorough, detailed, and candid exploration of his film as a whole, his intentions, technical difficulties about shooting in rainforests, and the pitfalls of directing actors through an interpreter. It is the insights into the director's intentions, however, that provide the most striking feature here; Sayles is remarkably thoughtful and allegorical speaking about his motivations in Men With Guns.
Visually, the film reminds me of a dirt road. The visual composition is striking and the exotic locations spring to life and look quite spectacular on screen. The anamorphic 1.85:1 presentation showcases the stunningly beautiful cinematography, with rich tones of brown and orange and pale greens; the entire film has a beautifully exotic orange undertone as if everything was awash in dust.
Unfortunately, this applies for the film transfer as well. Though the transfer itself is visually pleasing, detailed, sharp, and free from edge enhancements or other digital imperfections, the transfer is an absolutely filthy one. Though I have been unable to confirm the following, the only thing I can surmise is that while shooting in Mexico, the film canister must have popped open, and a small family of aardvarks made their nest inside, using the film stock to create a small nest, scratching the film from start to finish with their tiny claws.
Perhaps I exaggerate slightly. After all, that is just a theory. In fairness, this is a beautifully shot film, and it does looks quite fetching on DVD, but the extremely dirty source print is so detrimental to the presentation that it borders on the unacceptable -- especially considering the film is barely five years old. There are scratches, marks, smears, flecks of aardvark, and hundreds of other distracting pieces of crap smeared all over the film, which is a crying shame, because the film deserves better.
As with all deeply thoughtful and meditative films, Men With Guns can be incredibly heavy-handed at times. The same themes, the same images, the same metaphorical imagery is pounded into the viewer over and over that after a while it can grow tiresome, and slightly insulting to the intelligence.
While the film never actually drags, it begins to sag at times. Pensive filmmaking lends not to exciting movie going. I think that in one scene, we see armed soldiers storming a burning village, guns at the ready, and the scene lasts six seconds. So why wouldn't it make the cover of the DVD? Makes sense to me.
Be warned: Men With Guns is not a movie to entertain -- this is a movie designed to stir the heart and stimulate the mind, or something equally as pompous. And if stirring and stimulating cinematic fare are not to your liking, this film will rub on your nerves faster than a man covered from head to toe in cheese graters dancing the watusi.
Men With Guns is an unexpected film. When I sat down to watch it, the level of depth and feeling in the film surprised me. This picture has a lot to say; it is sad and subtle, but beguiling in its slovenly pace and sophisticated imagery. You could almost compare it to a film like The Thin Red Line -- a meditation about war, rather than a film showcasing war. This is not a film about guns or explosions or conflict. There is no good versus evil here; there are only introspective questions about morality and sin.
Men With Guns is an expectation-trampling film. Whether you enjoy having your expectations trampled, of course, is up to you, but if inner reflection bothers you not, take Men With Guns out for a ride.
Not even guilty for a second. A shame about the aardvarks, though.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 128 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary