Sicario (2015)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve. Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin

For a while, there was something very 1970s about Sicario. Kate (Blunt) is someone who believes in the rule of law, which makes her a throwback, which makes her obsolete. She is surrounded by people who believe in winning more than they believe in stuff like due process or building a case, and it turns out that the only reason she has been brought into their operation at all is because the CIA (that’s who they are) needs an FBI liaison involved in a mission before they can deploy on American soil, which is what they’re doing. Kate, a competent agent whose specialty lies well outside what Matt (Brolin) invites her to do, is never quite the protagonist of the story. We follow her around, but she is so purposefully kept out of the loop, and what she does so incidental to what actually happens in the movie, that she feels more like an audience surrogate than anything else. Structurally, it’s a sound choice. Like Kate, we can tell something’s wrong with Matt and Alejandro (del Toro) from the beginning, and every choice the two of them make seems suspect from that tricksy “legal” perspective. Brolin plays a grinning sociopath who uses flip-flops and arguments paraphrased as “This is how the sausage gets made” as a sleight of hand that successfully displaces Kate. After a mission to Juarez ends with two cars’ worth of dead Mexican civilians whose greatest crime, as far as anyone can prove, is looking suspicious and owning guns, she is already out on asking more questions about who she’s working with and what they’re actually up to. Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) manages to get some answers out of them, but they’re hardly full answers, and Matt realizes that he can throw down some smoke on Reggie by doing the opposite of what he does with Kate. With Kate, making the mission opaque is what will get him his way; with Reggie, making the mission translucent is what will get him his way. Brolin is giving the broadest performance of the bunch, but it’s also maybe the best performance, too, given in service of a movie which makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly what Matt’s team is doing wrong but never shying away from the fact that they are clearly doing some unethical, illegal stuff. Until the last raid, where Taylor Sheridan reminds us that he wrote the movie, which is all Taylor Sheridan has ever wanted.

In the course of a few minutes later in the day, the plot thickens. Kate decides to follow Alejandro rather than the rest of the CIA strike team, finds him with a corrupt Mexican statie, Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez), and orders Alejandro to let him go. Alejandro shoots her twice in the torso (knowing that she’s got bulletproof gear on), warns her against ever raising a weapon against him again, and with Silvio in the driver’s seat peels out. Ultimately, when Kate leaves the tunnel, she finds Matt, punches him in the face, and gets beaten up by him for good measure. She’s figured out, maybe a little belatedly, that Alejandro is getting paid by the Medellin. Thus Matt’s confirmation:

He works for the competition. Alejandro works for anyone who will point him toward the people who made him. Us, them, anyone who will turn him loose. So, he can get the person that cut off his wife’s head, and threw his daughter into a vat of acid. Yeah. That’s what we’re dealing with.

Not exactly “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” is it. This is a corny bit of business, and not even an actor as good as Brolin can save this info dump. Over and over again, Sicario is terrified that we won’t be able to figure out what’s happening. I actually kind of like the facepalm moment Reggie has when he murmurs the regulation that necessitates Kate’s involvement in the operation, but there is no other moment of exposition that feels necessary or meaningful. “Threw his daughter into a vat of acid” — I guess so, but you may as well say that they hacked her to bits, fed her to the dogs, and tossed the bones in a vat of acid. Like, it’s empty stuff that does not fundamentally change Alejandro. He was dangerous before, and now he’s also dangerous? And he was already en route to do these murderous things? The motivation is just stapled on, and it takes what was interesting about the character, the mystery of a brief reference to a Colombian origin that I think makes his Medellin background plausible if not ironed out, and shouts HE’S JUST GETTIN’ VENGEANCE loud enough so the people watching Inside Out in the next theater can hear it too. Sheridan loves some brutality, but like any number of film personalities post-Peckinpah he seems confused about how to make it effective as opposed to in-your-face. After almost a whole movie in which Alejandro’s violence is primarily been unseen (where he brings an entire water cooler into an interrogation room and we leave once the screaming starts) or highly nuanced (as when he sticks more of his finger in a crooked cop’s ear than one would think possible), we get this backstory that seems more fitting to the grungy stuff that depressed fourteen-year-olds write. There’s a belief in this movie that violence is more frightening when it’s unseen, and in other movies I think that’s true. When they get Ted (Jon Bernthal) in the back of their car, at least Alejandron and maybe Matt have already done a good job of beating him bloody offscreen. When Alejandro kills Alarcon’s family and then kills Alarcon (Julio Cesar Cedillo) himself, we don’t actually see any of the killing; we watch Alarcon’s face when his family is blown away, and Alejandro’s when he pulls the trigger on Alarcon. Those are fine, and easier to shoot, but they’re also far less memorable than four headless corpses hanging from underneath a bridge in Juarez, or the way that Matt’s team opens fire on Mexican civilians once they have the vaguest pretense to do so.

Nameless violence is significantly more frightening than violence against people we know in Sicario, but the movie insists on turning its final act into an exercise in killing people with names. Alejandro murders Silvio once his usefulness to him has run out, which I think is supposed to be extra sad because we’ve seen Silvio talking to his wife and kid. Sheridan hasn’t got any more use for Silvio than Alejandro has. The movie drops him and pulls him back up just to remind us of his existence; he’s got less backstory than anyone in this movie, and what backstory they do give him is nothing we haven’t seen hundreds of times before. There’s as much humanity in fattening up a pig for slaughter as there is in the way Sheridan treats Silvio, who goes not unlike a hog in the end. I’ll take a cynical movie, but it’s hard to swallow a movie which is trying to be sentimental when its screenwriter is that cynical. The opening of this movie features a raid that Kate leads to rescue some hostages, which fails because a platoon of hostages has been buried inside the walls of the house where the raid happened. It’s a crackerjack opening, the kind of thing they teach people in film school to get people hooked on the story and which ends up not mattering a whit in the grand scheme of things. The generous interpretation is about how with the sheer number of bodies that this movie drops, a few dozen, more or less, are worthless in the “land of wolves” where life is cheap. I think a more accurate one is that the dead don’t really matter at all in this movie, a text in which old-fashioned machismo is unethical but never really challenged. Does Sicario think we’ll root against Alejandro when he faces the man who gave the order to have his wife and daughter murdered in especially hideous fashion? Does it think we’re as naive as Kate, and that Alejandro should drop off Alarcon with the feds and hope they’ll put him in jail for the rest of his life without any particular case built against him? As much as Matt and Alejandro are made into villains of a sort in this movie, putting “CIA” or “Colombian cartel” in front of their job descriptions does significantly more work to get them there than anything either one of them does in the movie.

S. Craig Zahler has gotten a reputation within the same timeframe that Sicario has been out as a kind of right-wing filmmaker where white men pummel dangerous men of color in horrifying ways in defense of white womanhood. Sheridan, whose body of work as a writer includes stuff like the hilariously awful Hell or High Water, has enough center-left in the DNA of his work that I think people want to read him differently. Call Hell or High Water a movie about the financial crisis and people fall over themselves to praise its depth, even though it’s just another dusty bank-robbing movie with gratuitously literal graffiti and a racist white sheriff (but his buddy is an Indian, so it’s cool, obviously). Sicario points out the obvious problems in the drug wars along the USA-Mexico border, which hardly counts as some kind of social critique, and in the end makes its most successful and interesting characters its most villainous ones. But what’s the difference, really, between Brawl in Cell Block 99 (or Bone Tomahawk, I guess, though despite its western location I think it’s less relevant to this discussion) and Sicario? In both movies, having the will to follow through violent ends is depicted as something praiseworthy. In Zahler’s Punch-Out!!, Vince Vaughn uses might to make right. In Sicario, Alejandro uses might to make right, but there’s a little whisper that says, “But really, I guess it would have been better for him to take Alarcon alive to the authorities so he could be prosecuted.” It’s not much of a whisper. Everyone basically agrees, from Kate to Reggie to their boss, Dave (Victor Garber), to Matt and Alejandro and their independent contractor goons that the authorities are losing the war on drugs. They’re losing because they aren’t playing rough enough. The movie sneers at Matt’s methods, and it squirms a little when Alejandro takes out people who don’t deserve death by anyone’s standard, but it never even considers a line of thought like, “Why does Matt have a job, anyway?” or “How have people like Kate done their part to destabilize the border situation over the course of the past century and more?” For me the single worst scene of the movie is the one where we see, through night vision and heat sensing and stuff like that, how it must look from the eyes of these agents as they raid this tunnel in the dark. It’s just video game stuff, yee-haw Gulf War techy unreality all over again: is that being criticized, or is that being played up for how cool it is? At the end of the movie, Kate doesn’t shoot Alejandro down at the end of the movie even though she could, and the look on Blunt’s face lets us know that it’s not some ideal that stays her trigger finger, but her weakness. If she had Alejandro’s backbone, she would have killed him, and the movie condemns her in the end for not being one of the wolves. Sheridan’s work is not any more enlightened than Zahler’s, but Zahler at least has enough of a brain to know who his audience is.

With all that said (and that’s way more than I expected to say) I think that is almost certainly the best Villeneuve I’ve come across. It is less “aesthetic” than Arrival or Blade Runner 2049, movies which are very beautiful in their own different ways and don’t really justify that beauty. It’s also less ethereal, for the most part. Released from the sci-fi aesthetic, where nothing is ever supposed to look too real, Villeneuve turns out to have an eye for landscapes after all. The points that some of those shots are making Zahlerizes them a little—in America we have roads, in Mexico they have dirt, etc.—but he’s working to contextualize in real time in a way that I hadn’t come across in his work before. Sicario uses drone and helicopter shots to real effect, showing the vast scope of what people like Matt are fighting against: there’s no way they’ll ever have the will or the manpower to go house to house in the slums of Juarez to be able to weed out all the people they’re fighting against. There’s also real suspense in the way that the entrance into Juarez and the choppy, bloody exit out of Juarez are shot. The constant, slightly too fast driving of the black SUVs, the addition to their number of armed Federales on the backs of pickup trucks, the way that the slow roll of beat-up cars on the highway becomes threatening in this context rather than proof of drudgery on a road trip. Those are good action sequences, and again, they are one of the rare moments of conscience in a movie which doesn’t have nearly as much time to spare on conscience as it pretends to have.

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