After impressing me greatly with the haunting Prisoners and the marvelously maddening Enemy, I was eager to see what Denis Villeneuve would do next. Then, this opened at Cannes, to solid but not outstanding reviews, and the trailers failed to truly excite me. So my level of anticipation dropped accordingly. Then subsequent reviews proved more favorable, so much so that it now sits at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes–and I thought Villeneuve might have done it again after all.
I should have trusted my initial reaction. While not a bad film by any means, Sicario lacks a real reason for existing, and fails to say much about cartels or the War on Drugs that hasn’t been said before, nor does it feature such compelling characters or such dazzling craftsmanship as would compensate. It’s well done in most every aspect, but never takes that vital leap into being something special.
(NOTE: I also saw The Martian this weekend, and quite liked it, but I’d like to see it again before writing my review.)
In the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, an FBI raid on a house presumably owned by a high-ranking cartel member turns up over 40 dead bodies (and a booby-trapped bomb which kills two officers), which makes the national news and brings operative Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) to the attention of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a shadowy D.o.D. advisor who is conducting his own theater of the War on Drugs with the CIA and the Mexican authorities…and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose allegiance and motives are kept to himself. As he explains to Kate, “I go where I’m sent.”
In this instance, Kate, Matt, and Alejandro are sent to Ciudad Juárez, where they take custody of the brother of a major cartel operative, and engage in a firefight with cartel members in the midst of traffic just on the U.S. side of the border. Kate realizes that Matt and his colleagues are not operating by the book, and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) urges her to walk away. However, she is tentatively convinced that working with them will give her a greater chance of making a real impact.
After Matt and Alejandro question a group of detainees, they decide to focus their energies on a tunnel used for illegal immigration and drug smuggling. They decide to smoke out a top operative in the cartel by interfering with his clandestine bank deposits; Kate, against Matt’s advice, goes into the bank and informs the management of what has been going on. Later, she and Reggie go to a bar, and he introduces her to Ted (Jon Bernthal), a Phoenix PD officer who hits it off with Kate.
That night, as Ted and Kate are making out on his couch, she discovers he is connected to the cartel, and a fight ensues, with Ted nearly strangling Kate, before Alejandro arrives and saves her, and it is revealed that Kate acted as a kind of bait to suss out police officers with ties to the cartel. As the raid on the tunnel is about to commence, Kate realizes that Matt and his CIA colleagues have been using her to make their operations on U.S. soil legitimate, and Reggie again urges her to walk away, but she refuses, wanting to see “what they’ve been using us for.”
Throughout the film, we’ve seen episodes in the life of SIlvio (Maximiliano Hernández), a police officer in a small Mexican town, who mostly seems to live a quiet, happy life with his wife and son. But we learn that he is involved in the drug trade, and during the raid on the tunnel, Alejandro takes Silvio hostage and forces him to drive after the operative whom the bank raid was meant to smoke out. Alejandro shoots Kate (in her bulletproof vest) when she attempts to stop him, and when she confronts Matt, he reveals that the leader of the cartel killed Alejandro’s family years earlier.
Alejandro has Silvio pull the operative over, and kills Silvio in the process of commandeering the operative. He is driven to the home of Alarcon (Julio Cedillo), the aforementioned leader, and after killing the operative and his guards, confronts Alarcon as he dines with his family. Although Alarcon attempts to talk him out of his planned vengeance, Alejandro kills Alarcon’s wife and children, then kills the horrified Alarcon.
Later, Alejandro confronts Kate at her home, forcing her at gunpoint to sign a document vindicating the operation as wholly legal. He tells her:
You should move to a small town somewhere where they still believe in the rule of law. You are not a wolf. This is the land of wolves now.
He leaves, and Kate pulls a gun on him as he walks away, but does not shoot him. Silvio’s wife and son return to their lives as best they can, but violence surrounds them.
Violence pervades Sicario (the title means “hitman”); from the horribly gruesome discovery at the beginning to the unseen volleys of gunfire at the end (which are shrugged off as a fact of life), it’s a brutal experience, and the lack of emotional warmth on display (the happiest moments being those of Silvio’s domestic life) only underlines that fact. Much has been made elsewhere of the moral ambiguities the film explores, as the crimes of the drug trade are fought with tactics of similar brutality and often equal illegality–take the opening raid, where the front of the house is staved in by a tank, or the interrogation Matt and Alejandro conduct on the prisoner from Ciudad Juárez, where the camera is switched off and the rules go out the window.
The problem I have is the same problem I had with Leviathan: if you don’t know how brutal the cartels can be, and you don’t know how morally dubious the War on Drugs has become, are you likely to be watching a film like this? Maybe you’ll be like the teenagers who sat in front of me at the screening I attended; partway through, perhaps frustrating by the story’s lack of forward momentum, they left, never to return.
While I would question the taste of anyone who couldn’t appreciate a well-done slow burn, and while I’ve never to my knowledge walked out on a film in the theater, I could see where those teens were coming from. Sicario takes what feels like quite a while to get much of anywhere, and I’m not sure where it ends up is totally worth the trouble. Prisoners showed that Villeneuve could pull off a slow burn; Sicario shows that without a stronger script or characters, a slow burn just becomes slow going.
And indeed, the characters are not quite rich enough to overcome the staleness of the scenarios they enact. Reportedly, a sequel is in the works which will focus on Alejandro, but it’s Del Toro’s skill alone which makes Alejandro memorable; his shadowy nature and flickers of humanity are intriguing, but in the end he’s just another man seeking revenge for past tragedies. Matt has a little more verve due to his cheerful amorality, but again it’s Brolin who does most of the work.
But as our essential lead is Kate, that makes her lack of depth all the more frustrating. She tends to behave to further the plot more than to act as a human being; when she goes along with the raid on the tunnel, knowing that she’s just a pawn of Matt and his cronies, it doesn’t really matter what her motives are–she’s going because the plot needs her to. Reviews and synopses have generally described Kate as “idealistic”, but I didn’t get much sense of idealism, just the requisite opposition to Matt and company’s various malfeasances.
Arguably, the most intriguing character is Silvio, whose purpose is not made clear until the third act. It’s an interesting conceit, developing a character most films would bring on just to kill off. He appears a little too sporadically to realize his full potential, but the additional development of his character is arguably the most unique aspect of Sicario.
Taylor Sheridan’s script has some compelling dialogue, mostly from Matt and Alejandro, but in subject and storyline never quite becomes distinctive.
Villeneuve’s direction focuses more on atmosphere than action, and an air of fear and dread is fairly well maintained; there are also moments of detached reflection, like the scene where Kate and a soldier watch the volleys of urban warfare in Juárez from a distant rooftop. Because the story fails to really invest us, Villeneuve cannot quite create the same sickly aura that he does in his best work, but I don’t think the film shows any real lessening of his powers–only that they do not work exclusive of the script.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography doesn’t reach the heights of his best work, but there are some choice images; the team members, heading off on the climactic raid, seen in silhouette against a twilight sky, sinking beneath the black horizon, is easily one of the most striking of the year, and there’s some memorable movement on display, like the poignant tracking shot which shows Alejandro and the operative speeding away, before pulling back to show Silvio lying dead on the ground, a gratuitous casualty of a seemingly endless conflict.
Joe Walker’s editing is decently sharp, the sound design (especially the continual gunfire) is on point, and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score doesn’t get in the way (I didn’t really notice it much, however). Technically, the film is hard to fault, though not much easier to praise, Deakins’ work aside.
Emily Blunt has received a fair amount of praise for her work here, but the underwritten nature of Kate gave her not too much to work with, and she spends most of her time staring pensively. When she’s able to do more, she does it quite well–her final confrontation with Del Toro is very effective indeed, as she conveys the agony of Kate’s dilemma. And when Kate goes to the bar with Reggie and is allowed to show her more relaxed side, Blunt handles it smoothly. But there’s just not enough to Kate Macer for Blunt to build a really memorable performance on.
Del Toro finely underplays both Alejandro’s secretive exterior and vengeful interior, and while he too does not rise too far above the limitations of the material, he is good, though his presence reminded me of another cartel thriller, Oliver Stone’s tremendously underrated Savages, where he gives a far more colorful–and more memorable, and more repugnant–performance. For my money, it’s a decidedly more rewarding film than this one. In any case, Del Toro gets the best lines here and doesn’t waste them, and becomes the MVP almost by default.
Brolin, though, comes close, and if Matt’s exultation in doing just as he pleases is not so new, Brolin plays that exuberance without becoming hammy. He’s a nasty piece of work, and Brolin never loses sight of that fact, but he gives some energy, however rancid, to what is often a rather dour film.
Hernández is convincing as Silvio. There’s not really that much to him as a character, but Hernández convinces us both of his love for his family and of his terror as he is plunged into a situation he cannot control–the scene where is forced to pull over the cartel operative in particular shows his desperate repression of fear. Kaluuya is suitably integrous, and Bernthal suitably pathetic. Victor Garber is properly paternal as Kate and Reggie’s boss, who tries to convince them of Matt’s legitimacy (their request for which Matt later mocks as “running to Daddy”).
Maybe I was wrong to see Sicario at 11 pm, after having seen The Martian immediately beforehand, after having worked that morning (albeit with a nap in between). But I did, and I don’t think my opinion would’ve been substantially different under different circumstances. Sicario is objectively a solid film in most respects. Subjectively, though, it’s a grim trudge with a grim people to a grim conclusion that won’t likely surprise you.