Drafted in to the war on drugs: Denis Villeneuve’s tense Sicario

Trust Denis Villeneuve to take what could have been a fairly conventional drug war thriller and transform it into a hollowed-out horror movie. His latest film, Sicario is, at its core, a scathing indictment of modern American patriarchy. He pulled a similar trick with 2013’s underrated Prisoners, realising an unapologetically pulpy script as a deeply felt reflection on loss, and here he re-teams with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins to forge this year’s least conventional blockbuster (if that’s even the word for it). The film’s unconventionality requires some unpacking, though, so bear with me.

Judged purely as a thriller, Sicario is not entirely successful. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay incorporates everything you’d expect from a movie called “Hitman” in Spanish: numerous gruesome discoveries of the brutality of Mexican cartels, a covert American operation deep into the heart of lawless Juarez and Benicio del Toro shooting people in the head. Villeneuve ramps up the tension in the aforementioned incursion, playing off despairing aerial shots of the American convoy snaking its way through Juarez’s freeways with snapshots of our increasingly unnerved protagonist, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). But the inevitable gunfight is swift, decisive, subdued. The catharsis we’ve been conditioned to expect from this ramping-up of tension never quite arrives.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to regard Sicario as a political film, a commentary on the labyrinthine drug war that indicts the Mexican cartels and the American enforcers alike. There are certainly similarities between Villeneuve’s film and Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, though the former is less interested in the procedural details and more interested in explicit condemnation of the policies it portrays. (One of the stupidest things about the ZDT torture debate was the unquestioned assumption that Bin Laden’s assassination was unequivocally good; Sicario is far more assertive in establishing its moral position.)

If you’re looking for a nuanced interrogation of an impossibly complex situation, however, you won’t find it with Sicario. Villeneuve, perhaps handicapped by his script, spends more time luxuriating in aesthetic experiments – like a breathtaking night-time raid that alternates between night vision and expressionistic infrared – than outlining the realities of the drug war. The conclusions presented here are familiar ones: corruption begets corruption, violence begets violence, trust no one. Sicario resonates as a cinematic experience, but its realism is tactile, not political.

Sicario’s subversion is not found in its portrayal of the drug war, though, but in the way its narrative structure insidiously reinforces (and implicitly questions) both countries’ violent hegemonies. Emily Blunt’s protagonist is the only notable woman in the film, but rather than follow through the classical ‘strong female character’ arc, she is rendered largely irrelevant to the proceedings and has violence – physical, sexual, political – enacted upon her form. The CIA operation she’s seconded to is operated by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, whose über-laconic attitude (he looks like he’s just wandered in from the surf after smoking a joint) belies an enigmatic creepiness. Perpetually by Brolin’s side is the impossibly imperturbable Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who hides his own mystery. As the film progresses, Deakins’ camera distances itself from Blunt, eventually abandoning her altogether for an extended third act setpiece. She’s moral, and sympathetic, and rigorously by the books; so, of course, this isn’t her story.

Viewed through a feminist lens, perhaps Sicario is too misanthropic and pessimistic to be truly progressive. It provides no hope for improving our world; merely a stark portrait of its inequalities and injustices. That’s Villeneuve for you, though; he’s never been one for crowd pleasers.

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