John Sayles tackles his next subject in his new film Men With Guns. The trouble is, I’m not sure what his subject is…and I’m not sure he knows, either.
Dr. Fuentes (Federico Luppi) is a city doctor in an unnamed Latin American country. His wife has recently died, and he is coping with the issue of his legacy. The one thing he has done which gives him the greatest pride is a program he started to bring medicine to the Indians. He taught several medical students and then sent them out to the Indian villages in the mountains. However, he hasn’t heard from them, and so he begins a quest to track them down.
The journey takes him into the remote regions of his country, where people are tryannically ruled by Men With Guns: be they soldiers, guerrillas, or thieves. Along the way, he is joined by several fellow travelers: a parentless young boy (Dan Rivera Gonzalez), an outcast soldier (Damian Delgado), a priest (Damian Alcazar), and a mute girl (Tania Cruz). They are all searching for something, yet none quite know what it is.
With all of these characters searching for a common unnamed goal, the film has a strong allegorical feel. But what is the film trying to represent? The movie’s message is clouded by its lack of specificity. Is it yearning for simpler times? Crying out against the use of violence? Deploring the conditions in Latin America? Pointing out the futility of altruism against chaos? All of the above? None of the above? The movie is so vague and open to interpretation, the message could be any or none of these. Somehow the message of the film seems as pointless as the hero’s quest.
Men With Guns is at its strongest during its flashback sequences. The appropriately haunting sections are more moving and tragic than the central quest plotline.
Mandy Patinkin and Kathryn Grody make a few brief, but amusing, appearances as an American tourist couple who effortlessly bounce along on a parallel journey to Dr. Fuentes, visiting ruins in a never-ending search for atrocities.
Overall, watching the film, I get the feeling that Sayles was more interested in creating the moods and textures involved in the film than in telling any particular story. The end result is detachedly interesting, but could have been strung together to be a much more interesting movie.