Drug war movies are all about naïve cops learning that there are no “right” choices in the world of mustachioed men who sniff coke and carry Uzis. Meanwhile, those aforementioned Uzi-wielding mustachioed men rise to power in the criminal underworld and beg anyone who will listen to please, just please, say hello to their little friends. These movies can go either one of two ways: (A) they can make the drug war look like a slasher movie or (B) they can make the drug war look as glamourous as a drag show. Birds of Passage is better than, well, just about every drug war movie because chooses secret option C. Filmed by the team who made Embrace of the Serpent, the best film ever made about serpent embracing, Birds of Passage is a documentary-style flick that ditches the tropes of Scarface and Sicario 2: Day of the Solodado to become the first original movie of its kind in a good, long while.
Birds of Passage charts the early decades of the Colombian drug trade. It mostly ignores Pablo Escobar, drug epidemics on the receiving ends of the supply chain, and pretty much everything we’re used to seeing in movies about Colombian cartels. Instead, the film follows Rapayet (Jose Acosta), an ambitious member of an indigenous South American tribe who quickly realizes he can make a lot of money selling pot to white folks. Almost none of the film is spoken in Spanish, opting for the native language of Rapayet’s tribe, the Wayuu. It’s one of the first things you notice, as hearing a language that’s only spoken in a land radius smaller than Omaha to Lincoln is a constant reminder that Birds of Passage takes place in its own little world.
And yet, for as much new ground it breaks as a drug war movie, as a story about indigenous people, Birds of Passage covers all the basics. It’s the umpteenth movie about an indigenous tribe in the 20th century struggling to keep traditions while modern civilization steadily creeps in. According to movies, that’s the only heartache modern tribes must confront. It’s even a theme in Embrace of the Serpent. Why it works so well this time is because drug war movies are inherently about selfish people. There’s usually selfish government characters who pretend they care about crack on the streets only to further their own interests or they’re selfish gangsters only concerned with assembling as much money and power as possible. Birds of Passage is the first drug war movie I’ve seen about a community, and not just one being destroyed by narcotics. Well, not directly.
Although Birds of Passage is rooted in an incredible performance by Acosta, sadly featured in a film released too early in the film for awards hype and probably too quiet to get much attention among voters who prefer flashy performances anyway, the real star of the film are the Wayuu. Their language, their culture, everything. As a group, they’re sort of the anti-Tony Montana, and make several drug trafficking decisions together. Even as Rapayet forgets what makes his people who they are, the film never loses sight of their essence. It may be too early to call Birds of Passage one of the best films of the year, but I’ll definitely remember it come December.
Grade = A