Call it muscular filmmaking if you want, but Denis Villeneuve’s new film Sicario is considerably lightweight, more content with flaunting its sinewy exterior in the form of Roger Deakins’ cinematography than having the thematic endurance to showcase anything especially insightful; Heli it ain’t. That’s not to say Sicario is without merit – whole passages are so expertly composed and tension-ridden that it suggests something much more profound than it eventually devolves into.
A sandstorm brisance would have announced Sicario as being All Business if Johann Johansson’s aggressive pulse-beating score didn’t already clue you in as an armored vehicle crashes into a cartel den in Chandler, Arizona. And if that mortar-leveling moment weren’t enough, then the load-bearing corpses discovered strewn behind the hideout’s drywall should’ve done the trick. In this overwhelming and inhumane terrain we find Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent whose success on the field has her recruited by a special task force headed by the cocksure Matt (Josh Brolin) and his furtive partner Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Their departmental allegiances are unknown, though Kate willingly accepts their invitation to investigate cartel activity, if only to seek out revenge against the faceless few who were responsible for her colleagues’ deaths.
Sicario scintillates when it embraces the abyss that is Kate’s existential journey. Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan convincingly structure Sicario as a series of concentric circles, with Kate spiraling further and further down into darkness as her grip on what’s going on relents. Consistently misled and ill-advised, Kate’s position within Matt and Alejandro’s operation is never clearly defined. It’s this grand sense of unknowing where Villeneuve constructs the film’s most enduring trait: the immediate threat of movement. An incredibly tense sequence sees the triad, escorted by a band of nameless American mercenaries and Mexican federal agents cross the border into Juarez to bring in a detained cartel chief back to the States. An orchestral sense of movement accompanies this sequence as the crew moves into the Mexico, with more vehicles joining the convoy. On the way to the contact point, however, the ominous image of suspended corpses along a bridge halt their movement. They proceed, but on high alert, with the overarching sense of dread accumulating quickly.
It’s effective primarily in the way Villeneuve shoots and stitches together the sequence. His frequent overhead shots of the moving vehicles crossing the terrain is not all too dissimilar from the opening passage of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where the immediate threat of chaos and disorder are suggested through the exploration of the uncharted. But Villeneuve compounds this by putting you in the passenger’s seat, so to speak – editing patterns cut from overhead terrain shots, to within the vehicles, to Emily Blunt’s tense reaction shots. There’s a great deal of intelligence in how the Juarez scenes were composed and an incredible amount of skill associated with how sustains itself throughout.
But these formal flourishes highlight the problems found in other parts of the picture, which are plentiful. Villeneuve and Sheridan lose sight of Kate’s narrative, never allowing the effect of her distress to dictate or spur on agency – she begins as someone with an established mythopoeia and history and is effectively stripped of it by the film’s end. Yet the nihilistic direness seems to be exclusively pointed in Kate’s direction; the men of the film are in full charge and dictate what chaos reigns supreme. This gender-specific hegemony isn’t exactly coming out of nowhere. After all, the opening of the film sees a board room full of men address Kate with their pointed stares. But Kate’s endearing moralism seems to compromise her capacity to endure. The film’s conclusion is as brutally bleak as they come, where you see her firm set of beliefs waver. Yet it doesn’t feel right. One can think back to Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya and see a character established as a blank slate and slowly amass the battle scars that made her cruel but unyielding in her beliefs. Sicario’s conclusion is a setback, an unconvincing and feckless attempt to waver a character’s strengths.
Even more problematic is a series of scenes involving a Mexican family. Composed as asides, these scenes (which mostly see a son and his father interact as a mother operates on the outskirts, again emphasizing the largely patriarchal stroke of the picture) are so forcefully schematic that it compromises the integrity of the whole film. Unlike Amat Escalante’s Heli, a film that organically deploys a similar technique, the combination of cartel intrusion on everyday life has never felt so false and telegraphed. These sequences, meant to shed light on the true causalities of the war on drugs, are bleak in the same labored ways that saw Villeneuve at his worst in Prisoners – they’re scenes that suggest the very worst and very best of humanity, never making room for anything in the between.