A War of Two Sides: Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario”

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For years now, probably since I was a teenager, I’ve always had some kind of gag reflex whenever anything popular entered the mainstream. Game of Thrones, Utopia, The Artist, even video games like Assassin’s Creed, once I had missed the train when they first showed up I would never play catch up. It’s as if, once missing the stop at the station, I could never convince myself to chase after whatever it was everyone was watching and what everyone was talking about. I only started viewing Breaking Bad from the beginning once the show had finished its run! But I do arrive at where everyone else is eventually, it perhaps just takes me a year or two to get there. Paradoxically, the more popular it is, the more I tend to avoid it until the hype quietens down. That was my experience with ‘Sicario‘.

Critics were raving, friends were championing, the internet was abuzz when this film came out. Its own theatrical poster had more complimentary reviews on it than it did images of the cast. So, quite naturally, given the hype, I decided to sit this one out. Not for any personal reason against the director or writer, but just because it was the flavour of the month that everyone was going to see. In any event it only took me 15 months to finally come around and watch the film, a new record for me, but typing all of this was to just give you the context that there are certain films I avoid during the hype, only to see if they can actually stand up to it once a bit of time has passed. In my opinion, Sicario doesn’t.

The word ‘doesn’t’ often always has such a negative connotation attached to it but I do not wish for my use of the word to imply that the film is bad in any way. In fact, it’s quite brilliant. The story is compelling, characters are interesting, the world is vivid and richly filled, its cinematography is beautiful, the score is haunting, its cast perfect, its pacing spot on…you get the idea. My problem is that the film works on all of those levels, and superbly I might add, for about two-thirds of its story, before sadly descending into madness. But more on that later, first the good stuff.

It may seem fashionable to be making a high-octane government thriller given the current political climate. President Donald Trump is raging about building his grand wall across the US/Mexico border. Concerns and feelings regarding illegal immigrants are being roused up by the media. The slew of popular drug-themed shows like the before mention Breaking Bad have put the border states into the media spotlight for many years now. It’s natural that a product like Sicario would come out of it from Hollywood at some point given all of these current political tensions. What was refreshing for me to see was just how well made it was from a production standpoint. Whether its depictions of Hispanics, Mexican cartels, the DOD-CIA and ordinary people between the borders are fair is another question for a different review.

Starting with the positives, Sicario is one of the best-paced thrillers in recent memory. No one sequence drags for too long or overindulges in stylistic imagery. Editor Joe Walker uses the best of Roger Deakins’ closeups to introduce us to the world without ever feeling like we have overstayed. The opening scene plays like a cutscene to a good video game or maybe an episode of Hannibal, fast-paced and not dragging for too long. The use of environments from the Arizonan desert, the well air-conditioned interiors of the Department of Defense, to the urban jungle sprawl of Mexican cities, are all shown for just enough time. One can be left with a sense of yearning to see more of the world our characters are caught up in, but director Villeneuve won’t allow us to.

As for the characters themselves, Sicario has just about the best cast a director could want. Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer may be a slightly unoriginal female protagonist but Blunt does wonders with her performance. She takes this rather bland canvas of a woman in a man’s world and makes her both the audience for the film and the moral compass in the story. The trick that she pulls off is in how we never question if it is her femininity that is responsible for her having strong moral convictions she carries. She isn’t inserted into the film because she is a sensitive woman, rather her character is sensitive due to being a morally driven person. There is no sense that the film is in some way a piece of feminist casting in order for Hollywood to appear more pro-female protagonist. Yes her role could have been played by a man, but then the film would have been short of a solid actress doing a bang-up job.

 

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The dilemma Kate Macer faces as she slowly begins to understand how the differing US agencies operate is one of the central columns of her development. We as an audience are invested in her greatly as her perspective is very much similar to that of the audience. It’s mainly for this reason that I found Sicario’s third act so disappointing when the plot drops focus on her entirely and shifts to a supporting character.

 

As for the supporting characters, the ever-likable Josh Brolin makes a welcome appearance early on as the shady CIA operative Matt Graver, who enjoys operating in the shadows of the US Government. Brolin, for me, is an actor who has made giant leaps and bounds since the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, but there are times where he has been woefully miscast. Brolin’s strengths are when he is allowed to be more natural, more grizzled and beer-bellied if you will. In Sicario he plays a slacks-wearing, sandle-strutting agent who looks as if he could blend perfectly into modern suburbia, grabbing the local paper off the front lawn. Brolin is almost tongue-in-cheek as he relishes in several scenes where the discussions about hidden tunnels full of drugs and how many people he’s allowed to shoot are discussed with others. He’s not deranged but rather indifferent to the amount of laws he and his team are breaking daily, giving the film some of its best moments when Macer and Graver are at loggerheads.

The other major character is Alejandro Gillick played by the even more rugged Benicio del Toro. It could almost be a sign of him being typecast once again as a drunken, sleepy, lazy-eyed rogue but here del Toro far outshines past performances. Wearing suits that are slightly snazzier than necessary, del Toro patrols the back of the frame throughout most of the story. He lurks behind the shoulders of Brolin and Blunt, often quietly hinting that his past is a dark one. Cliched I know, but given the bleak world Sicario throws us into it almost can’t be helped. Del Toro’s nationality also adds another component to the story. Instead of a thriller told from a purely all-American perspective, Gillick’s South American roots give us an even more jaded experience of the War on Drugs than even Blunt’s. This is compounded when several scenes in the film revolve around a Mexican police officer who leads a double life by helping a local drug lord smuggle drugs into the States.Sicario’s

Sicario’s visual style also deserves a mention. Deakins uses the landscape of the US/Mexico border to paint for us some striking images. The scorching heat of the desert is almost white when viewing the many panoramas of the border. Stark contrasts from skin tones to the jet blue of the sky above giving the film a very colourised look despite the bleak enviornments. The grudgyness of the city Juárez is something akin to Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire” (2004). The look isn’t particularly original but it works. Overhead shtos are especially well used, working well with recent public awareness regarding drones and the writer’s, Taylor Shreidan, themes of surveillance and government overwatch in murky waters. One particularly striking visual is when a group of Delta Force commandos, joined with the main cast, are walking in the Mexican outback, silhouetted against the brilliant orange sky. Villeneuve holds this shot until the last soldier has been swallowed up by the black ground giving composer Jóhann Jóhannsson plenty of time to excel in building up his very tense score.

So then why after all this praise from so many people do I find myself lamenting Sicario? In short the problem, I think, isn’t so much the world of the film but rather what the writer did with it. Specifically with the character of Gillick. After a raid by Brolin’s team on a secret tunnel shaft full of drug runners, del Toro manages to apprehend the corrupt police officer we have come to know and begin to almost like. He forces him to drive to the location of his drug baron boss until encountering a low-level henchman. He murders the officer, killing off his slowly built story in an instant, and forces the henchman to continue to drive to the estate of local kingpin Alarcón, the film’s unseen antagonist. For the next 15 minutes we observe Gillick becoming James Bond as he murders thug after thug in this giant, garish mansion until coming upon Alarcón and his family at the dinner table.

What follows is a scene that tries too hard to appear deep or meaningful in some way. Gillick’s speech about his wife’s brutal death does absolutely nothing in revealing anything truly interesting or memorable, while Alarcón (Julio Cedilo) himself isn’t given enough time to leave a marked impression. He simply sits there in his chair with typical “I’m a bad guy” swavyness. If this is the man Gillick has been waiting for years to kill then he should be disappointed. Gillick’s decision to murder Alarcón’s entire family before shooting him in the head is a typical example of shock posturing as story. It doesn’t resolve or release any emotional turmoil for us as viewers due to the fact that Gillick was never designed to be the character we’re meant to root for. Upon returning back to America he forces Macer to sign an official waiver that says all operations by the CIA were legal. After a typical refuse/concede exchange GIllick leaves Macer to sob in her cheap hotel room, realising that the world is far more horrible than she had previously known.

My issues with this whole third act, this entire third chunk of the film, isn’t with how poorly this cliched finale was but rather that the writer decided to go down this road to begin with. Sicario should have been Macer’s story, Macer’s trial of redemption. Instead she’s left completely on the sidelines after Del Toro’s tortured soul manages to smuggle himself across the border. There is next to no development between these two characters to make any switching of the protagonist seem sensible or even remotely possible. We, as the audience, are guided by what Macer is introduced to when she joins up with Graver. Her confusion over agency legalities, moral conundrums, ethics under fire, all of it is the test that we witness her go through. So to have the third act of the film take a complete left turn out of nowhere and follow Gillick is incredibly jarring. It gives the impression of a director and writer stuck with the question of what to do.

Instead of going for a more complex ending that failed to offer a clean-cut solution to the numerous problems the war on drugs has, we’re given a brief Mexican version of James Bond on a killing spree. Gillick as a character did not require the story to suddenly revolve around himself as it leaves the last third of the film feeling incomplete. Perhaps one day there will be an extended cut where we see more of Macer’s moral dilemma after the big shoot out. Somehow I doubt it. For all of its strengths, and there are so very many, Sicario fails at the most critical point and becomes a disappointing, missed opportunity. It provides for us an interesting, highly cynical look at a war that has raged for over four decades now, and questions us at several points to think if it’s all been worth it. But for all the power that Villeneuve puts into a very entertaining action/thriller Sicario collapses under its own weight and unfortunately leaves one wanting for more in the worst sense possible.

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