(dir. Denis Villeneuve)
“Nothing will make sense to your American ears.”
If you’ve ever experienced a sudden heat rising in your throat, a certain indistinguishable quality to your hearing where everything seems distant and yet uncomfortably loud, a feeling not totally dissimilar to sinking, then you may have already gotten a taste of what Denis Villeneuve’s latest film is like in its finest moments. Sicario is a panic attack, not only in its efforts to create a visceral emotional experience for its audience, but also as a cinematic critique of a compassionless American government.
Sicario finds FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) handpicked by government consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to aid him, a team of CIA operatives, and the mysterious interrogator Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) to hunt down a Mexican drug lord whose business has crossed the U.S. border. As their hunt leads them further across the border, and straight out of U.S. jurisdiction, Macer finds her loyalties tested and her sense of justice compromised. No longer protected by the laws she thought defined her, Macer finds herself an unwilling pawn in a squad of American-sanctioned hitmen. Like Prisoners and Enemy, Villeneuve takes his characters (and viewers) down a long, and winding tunnel of darkness where the light at the end is the illumination of their true selves, which they, and perhaps we, were hesitant to face.
In many ways, Sicario is like Westerns of old, the ones that saw cowboy ethics fall to the wayside as industrialization and railroads brought the frontier to an end. The west that Kate Macer finds herself in is also undergoing a massive upheaval in the form of drug runners from Mexico whose own railroads, in the form of secret, underground tunnels are reshaping the land. Blunt portrays Macer as stoically observant, quiet yet desperate for answers, professionally calm but privately emotional. For all intents and purposes she’s one of the last remaining bastions of empathy and unshakable righteousness in a cruel and lawless land—at least that’s how she regards herself. She’s unsure of her role within Graver’s team, but committed to the notion that she is acting heroically, preventing further death. But Villeneuve has displayed a consistent interest in deconstructing who his characters think they are, and who they realize they are when they find themselves in what Alejandro refers to as “a land of wolves.” Macer isn’t marked by a sharp and violent tragedy that sends her over the edge like Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover in Prisoners. Instead she’s more akin to Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, a character whose good intentions and curiousness lead her to answers that shatter faith and purpose.
It is purpose that Brolin’s grinning, sandal-wearing Graver promises. With his almost callously easy-going nature, he isn’t concerned with the human interest side of wiping out the Mexican cartel--how it will better the lives of the citizens who live in fear of mutilation. He cares nothing for the people of Juarez, only for what the destruction of the cartel will mean for the future of American politics. He’s chaos, as the film puts it, especially when compared to Del Toro’s orderly and ominous Alejandro whose greatest fault may be that he is too human, too connected to the past, to be just. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan carefully situates Macer between these two men, resulting in three conflicting reflections of America and no clear winner. While the film’s many plot points and twists create a somewhat winding narrative that isn’t always easy to follow in the moment, Sheridan’s script only serves to showcase the complex nature of offensive political measures and power moves.
Villeneuve skillfully handles the film’s action-oriented conflicts, refusing to turn the film into an action-movie and yet creating tactical shootouts that serve as highpoints in the film. Every gunshot feels startlingly real and close, almost conditioning the audience to dread the shootouts, or at least find them startling instead of comforting popcorn fare. Sicario doesn’t display a condemnation of violence. The film is brutal and stylishly edited in its depiction of it, but it never establishes its stakes in a way where heroes and villains can be delineated. In the film’s longest shootout scene during the third act, the targets are never shown. We see the CIA firing guns, we see retaliation, hear shouts, and eventually see bodies, but Villeneuve never situates the audience in a position to clap, cheer, or whatever it is people do during major battle scenes. So while the American government the film depicts may be solely focused on big picture actions, Villeneuve is interested in the up close and personal ones, the shots that count.
Sicario’s sense of impending, unavoidable doom and bleakness is furthered by incomparable cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Deakins constructs some of the best shots of the year, creating an almost constant sense of downward motion. In one of the film’s best scenes, Deakins captures Macer alongside a team of CIA operatives as they move down a slope, disappearing into the shadow created by the setting sun. In the film’s many overhead landscape shots, the camera slowly moves across the dry land, distorting it so that it almost looks like close-ups of bones. Death and descent permeate the film, and Jóhannsson’s score shifts between dark, rhythmic pulses, and what can only be described as the musical equivalent of children crying. And yet this near constant bleakness is contrasted by the daylight of most scenes, and the film’s color palate that consists primarily of shades of yellow and orange. These serve as reminders that however harsh the events on screen may be and however murky the film gets in terms of plot points and character motivations, there is always illumination at the end. Perhaps not warm or appealing, but illumination all the same.
There are fleeting moments of humor, but in the end there is little hope to be found in the film’s message. And yet despite this, or perhaps because of it, Sicario is one of the year’s best films. It is entirely uncompromising in vision and denunciation without feeling trite, unwarranted, or grossly political. Sicario is a riveting, entertaining and disheartening light that leads us out of the Western Civilization we once knew.