Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute
by Jericho Cerrona
If any notable think pieces come from director Denis Villeneuve's latest picture Sicario, it will be regarding the magical cinematic powers of cinematographer Roger Deakins (Fargo, No Country For Old Men). His ability to render the impoverished landscapes of Jaurez, Mexico with a dangerous kind of poetry is alone reason to see the film on the big screen, and that's also not taking into account the visage of night-vision compositions inside a cartel tunnel and countless ariel shots captured with breathtaking specificity. This is the work of a consummate master, and his contribution goes a long way in capturing Villeneuve's faux-gritty expose on drug cartel violence. What people will not be talking about, however, is the complex nature of the war on drugs that's only hinted at here. The film, from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, takes the obvious "we are fucked" angle; submerging the audience in a grim state of hopelessness. Similarly, Villeneuve's 2013 film Prisoners showed us the self-evident perils of vigilante justice gone awry, but that film's heavy-handedness actually worked in its favor, complimented by owerhouse performances and Deakins' evocative lensing. Sicario,on the other hand, is a one-dimensional rendering of a complicated issue that just happens to have really talented actors doing their best with stereotypical characters.
The idea of making a simplistic genre film structured around visceral set-pieces isn't a bad idea, and there's certainly much to admire about Sicario. But Villeneuve also seems to think he's making something more important than that; a kind of "realistic" message movie about the futility of the Texas/Mexico border war zone buried under the guise of a generic action thriller. Though he's adept at conjuring a slow-building feeling of dread and eliciting strong work from Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro as government operatives, the real problem is the script, which gives us a pedestrian fish out of water story about idealistic field agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Her inclusion into the macho world of cynicism and senseless violence is meant to provide an audience surrogate while also symbolizing America's blind optimism in the face of unspeakable horrors, but it mostly plays as lazy screenwriting. Contrived narrative conventions notwithstanding, there's also something mechanical about Villeneuve's approach here; everything is so rigidly controlled and precise that eventually, the self-seriousness starts draining the film's energy completely. Much like in his previous feature, the Jake Gyllenhaal mind-fuck Enemy, Villeneuve treats even the most mundane action as if it contains high-minded profundity. The problem is that all of this portentous hand-wringing simply reveals that Sicario has nothing to say beyond how bleak, brutal, and hopeless the drug war is. This is all well and good given the moral grey areas on both sides, but it doesn't necessarily make a thought-provoking filmgoing experience.
At first, there's something interesting about placing Blunt's capable FBI operative in the spotlight; beginning with an impressive drug raid on an Arizona suburban home where horrific discoveries are made. Having a female at the center of such a violate situation could have made for a gender-based commentary on how unchecked machismo breeds violence, but Villeneuve and Sheridan aren't interested in that. After joining the likes of Brolin's smarmy agent Matt Graver and Del Toro's enigmatic Alejandro, Blunt is purposefully sidelined to make way for yet another treatise on corrupt American male power. We've seen this type of thing so many times before--the wide-eyed optimist who wants to make a difference getting in over their heads, the duplicitous government officials lurking in the shadows, the evil Mexican drug lords hanging mutilated bodies from bridges--that the ultimate effect of the film isn't outrage, but rather, a shrugging acknowledgment of a flawed system. Though Blunt valiantly tries to imbue Kate with vulnerability, anger, and uncertainty, her character is simply a moveable piece in a grander scheme where her presence is all but arbitrary. The obvious point here is that the war on drugs is fucked beyond repair; a sentiment that Villeneuve treats with a hushed kind of self-importance, as if he's discovering something hidden from the masses. Brolin is a hoot as a man who uses sarcasm and macabre humor to deal with something out of his control, and Del Toro gives Alejandro a dead-eyed patience and haunted stillness, but here again, these are characters operating within a film which is only about surfaces.
Of course, when these surfaces are shot by Deakins, it's tough to truly complain. At it's best, Sicario often plays like a lesser version of a Michael Mann throwback, ala Heat, where the widescreen compositions give seemingly normal locations a ghostly presence. Meanwhile, Villeneuve's deft handling of suspense riding atop the electronic-tinged drone of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, gives the set-pieces a certain tactile quality. Still, as skilled as Villeneuve is as a filmmaker, he doesn't seem that interested in actual people with interior lives and motivations. He's trying very hard to convince you that all hope is lost, but his film's narrative machinations feel like an easy way out, and the characters (though well portrayed by a game cast) feel like constructs to make a larger thesis. This is the kind of glum, ominous filmmaking that's been a staple of Villeneuve's past work and when it clicks; like in the shocking family drama Incendes, the results can be exhilarating. Sicario, though, simply works up a menacing mood and then stays there, failing to develop this transparent thesis and losing it's emotional center in the process. Of course, the point here is that there is no emotional center; that Blunt's tenacious everywoman has no place in a land of wolves. But even wolves, no matter how ravenous, can use a little more meat on the bones before feeding time.