by Matt Levine
A quiet, cookie-cutter subdivision outside of Phoenix: the sky is impossibly blue, each yard landscaped to perfection. Through the calm cuts a squad of armed agents, their black bodysuits anomalous in the dusty terrain. What the agents discover hidden in the walls of a seemingly innocuous home causes several of them to vomit in the backyard; what they find next in a small shed nearby proves to be even deadlier. This is an incredibly tense and thrilling opening to a movie, but somehow Sicario and its director, Denis Villeneuve, manage to sustain and even ratchet up this intensity for the next two hours, crafting one of the most compelling and visceral genre films of 2015 (which is saying something in the year of It Follows and Mad Max: Fury Road).
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell, Molly Smith
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Editor: Joe Walker
Music: Johan Johansson
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Hank Rogerson, Bernardo P. Saracino
Premiere: May 19, 2015 – Cannes Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 18, 2015
US Distributor: Lionsgate
The SWAT team is led by a Phoenix FBI agent named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), part of a homicide squad. The corpses stuffed into the walls of this house, though, lead her into the heart of a different beast: the drug cartels that wage war across the US-Mexican border, instilling terror in the hearts of their innocent compatriots and panic in the US government, which vows to win the “war on drugs.” Though Kate has little knowledge of the Mexican drug trade, the leaders of an interdepartmental task force bring her on board; she knows they are looking to suppress the Sonora cartel, but otherwise her superiors leave her purposefully in the dark. Childless, recently divorced, experienced in military action but not yet cognizant of her government’s corruption, Kate seems like an ideal foot soldier, able to be molded into an obedient, unquestioning pawn.
Her supervisors are hardly a trustworthy bunch. The wolfish Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) wears sandals to a debriefing, answers each question with an evasive, smartass joke, and seems to delight in the complete amorality with which he operates. Who does he work for, Kate constantly asks—D.O.D.? C.I.A.? Some under-the-radar acronym that no one’s ever heard of? His stoic associate Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) is even more mysterious, grizzled and seemingly compassionate to Kate’s plight but capable of extreme brutality at the same time. As more of his shocking backstory becomes clear, Alejandro becomes Sicario’s most intriguing character, a perfect symbol for the balance of humanity and carnage that the film tries to maintain. Del Toro’s performance is, of course, essential in lending Alejandro a rueful complexity; whenever he aims his gun at someone, it truly seems like Alejandro is weighing the stakes of taking another human life.
Sicario rockets from one thrilling setpiece to the next, efficiently evoking character and theme in between the action thanks to a lean, concise screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Kate’s first mission as a member of the task force—only days after accepting the job—sends her to the border city of Juarez, where her squad is tasked with transporting a high-ranking druglord from a Mexican prison back to the States. (One of her first sights in Juarez is a group of mutilated corpses hanging from a bridge; the look on Kate’s face can only be described as existential horror.) This leads to a heart-stopping scene at the US-Mexico border in which hundreds of people trapped in their cars—logjammed thanks to an accident down the road—are potential hitmen waiting to bombard the transport. Later, Kate joins a troop of Navy SEALs (who constantly ridicule her inexperience) in infiltrating secret tunnels bridging Mexico and the United States; the scene is partially filmed in night-vision and thermal-vision, making the sequence as visually astonishing as it is intense. Other highlights include an attempted hit on Kate’s life interrupted at the last minute, and a haunting scene in which Alejandro singlehandedly breaks into a kingpin’s villa; the sequence avoids the sensationalistic bloodlust that other action-thrillers might have indulged. There’s no question that Villeneuve, Sheridan, and the rest of the cast and crew wanted to make the most propulsive action movie possible, and Sicario absolutely succeeds in that regard.
With this storyline, though, heart-racing action isn’t enough; the real-world context demands some kind of thematic insight and a sensitivity to the human costs of this seemingly irrepressible carnage. Sicario is less successful here; although it’s unfair to expect the movie to answer, or even thoroughly address, the multifarious issues of the border drug wars, it’s also true that the full political and economic impact on the United States and Mexico remains murky at best in Sicario. While a dual storyline follows the family of a police officer in Juarez and attempts to emphasize the human costs of the cartels’ rampaging violence, this subplot is so vague and hurried that its emotional impact is diminished (though it does lead to a devastating ending).
Even considering these flaws, though, Sicario remains the rare action movie that is noticeably sickened by its own violence. An early torture scene cuts away from the brutality to a close-up of a grimy drain on the floor of an interrogation room, a clever way to suggest that the US government has descended into a heartless abyss in order to catch its prey, adopting the methods of its target—a theme reaffirmed when Kate learns of a dubious partnership that her government has made with another (less heinous) criminal organization. When a cartel leader’s family is killed before his eyes, Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (doing masterful work as always) decide to focus on the man’s face instead of the victims, asking us to sympathize with a vicious criminal responsible for the deaths of hundreds (if not thousands) of people. Accusations that Sicario aestheticizes violence are not off-base, but it does so in order to stress its cruelty, its inhumanity; there is nothing cheap or easy in the deaths that Sicario portrays, which can’t be said about many action movies.
Denis Villeneuve is a director I’ve long thought has promise, though he’s never realized that potential until now. After 2009’s Polytechnique, a rigorous retelling of a true-life Montreal school massacre, put him on the map, the Québécois director made Incendies (2010), a sprawling, suspenseful story of a Lebanese family. Though the movie has glimmers of greatness, it also features some terribly misguided decisions, like scoring a scene in which a young boy is getting his head shaved by the Taliban to Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” Villeneuve’s highest-profile film yet, Prisoners (2012), is also his worst; his strident, sledgehammer tone wrings awful performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, though part of the blame lies with the turgid screenplay. Not until Sicario has Villeneuve successfully blended his grim aesthetic, affinity for genre excitement, and interest in ripped-from-the-headlines stories; hopefully the director continues down this auspicious path.
Though documentaries like Narco Cultura explore this subject matter more thoroughly, and shows like Breaking Bad have the breadth to investigate how the drug wars ripple through American (and to a lesser extent Mexican) life, Sicario uses this fearsome environment to make a grim and existential comment—a story of lawlessness and evaporating morality, a look at how humans would act if mere survival was all that mattered. It’s a “land of wolves,” Alejandro tells Kate, by which he means both the Mexican cartels and the American government, not to mention the foreign drug empires that make unlikely partnerships. Kate is (unfortunately) a bit of a cypher, asked to be a surrogate for a dislocated audience—her backstory is hinted at but remains oblique, an intentional way to heighten a sense of unknowability (though it would still be nice if the character had more depth). Both she and Alejandro, who basically admits he has nothing left to live for, seem to edge towards self-destruction—call it a death wish, and an accompanying knowledge of the fragility of life. Del Toro and Emily Blunt beautifully evoke these characters’ fatalism, with the latter offered one of the movie’s most difficult and unapproachable roles. (Josh Brolin, meanwhile, has fun as the snarling Graver; he’s becoming supreme in the art of devilish, larger-than-life supporting roles after this and Inherent Vice.) Surprisingly, Sicario’s bleak existentialism has more in common with the icy cops-and-criminals movies of Jean-Pierre Melville--Le Samourai (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge especially—than a thriller like The Counselor.
Sicario doesn’t have the scope or emotional impact to be truly great, but it comes close: a swift, sharply-made action-drama as thrilling as it is thought-provoking. When the movie threatens to become too cold and removed for its own good, Sicario's ending jarringly incorporates the subplot that’s been running throughout the film, parallel to the main story: the police officer’s son playing soccer in a field, the city of Juarez jutting in the distance, watched by friends and family. The moment could have been maudlin, but in context it’s heartbreaking—a patter of gunfire and, abruptly, the closing titles. There’s no closure here, no suggestion that it will all be resolved. This is where Sicario’s cold, unvarnished empathy can be found: a disgust at how easily human nature can distort itself and a realization that the riddle won’t solve itself anytime soon.