Amigo, the latest from writer-director John Sayles (Lone Star, Matewan), takes place in 1900 during the American occupation of the Philippines, and it could almost be mistaken for a straight historical feature, if not for Sayles’ established political bent and the hard-bitten colonel played by Sayles favorite Chris Cooper. When Cooper puts a detachment of Americans in charge of a small Filipino baryo, he grumbles about his focus on “winning hearts and minds.” When he thinks a local has information he isn’t sharing, he subjects him to a waterboarding-like torture—then cheerfully proclaims it isn’t torture, since it doesn’t leave physical scars. Ultimately, Amigo is as much about Iraq and Afghanistan as it is about a century-old chapter of history—and it’s as much about human nature as it is about either era.
While some of Amigo’s characters are more venal, aggressive, ignorant, or culpable than others, Sayles refuses to broadly pick sides between the Filipino village-dwellers (represented by respected, well-meaning baryo headman Joel Torre), the American forces (led by equally well-meaning lieutenant Garret Dillahunt) who have driven out the Spanish and are reluctantly settling in for occupation, and the guerilla rebels (locally led by Ronnie Lazaro, playing Torre’s brother) who have transitioned from resisting the Spanish to resisting the Americans. All three groups, he shows, are made up of highly individuated people with varied personalities and goals—and yet they average out to groups who behave in roughly the same ways. Some of Amigo’s best moments consist of casually drawn parallels showing how both invaders and invaded live similar lives, whether they’re mourning the dead, fighting boredom with card games and gossip, or casually dismissing and demonizing each other with hateful stereotypes. He also spends plenty of time on well-observed, simple interactions between individuals, without trying to make those interactions add up to a pointed story.
The resulting lack of narrative tension does ultimately blunt the story’s tragic ending, which leans too hard on malign coincidence and/or an easy irony that feels contrived after so much low-key realism. And Sayles missteps in other ways, notably by returning too often to scenes where characters perversely bare their souls via monologues delivered to other characters who don’t speak their language. He also adds in an infuriating Spanish priest who seems to exist only to underline the hypocrisy of religion, and its role in justifying war with self-serving, nonsensical cant delivered with the confidence of holy writ. But this kind of overemphasis is rare in Sayles’ work, and it’s the exception here, in a beautifully shot, beautifully acted, rich piece that whispers its messages rather than shouting them. Sometimes that makes them hard to hear, but better adult subtlety than childish obviousness.