Denis Villeneuve’s latest is gorgeous and thrilling but ultimately more exhausting than interesting.
It is unquestionable that when it comes to finding thrills, beauty and even profundity in often ham-fisted sentiment and overbearing nihilism, Québécois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve – alongside his now two-time collaborator Roger Deakins – is a truly excellent craftsman… but one that often threatens to overshadow his own stories with vague, hollow style. In Prisoners he fashioned small-town crime and domesticity as a nightmare of details, where everything and nothing matters all at once, swallowing those unlucky enough to be sifting through them for answers while in Enemy he spun an intricate, high-concept web of fragile masculinity and how quickly it can go from devastating to horrific but it’s in Sicario – his latest film on the intangibility and moral decay of the American War on Drugs – where his flexing craft finally overwhelms his subject, so enthralled by his own thrills that his deep, ~moral complexity~ reveals itself to be, at best, little more than thinly veiled masochism and, at worst, some toxic, disempowering Boyz Club nonsense. In Mexico, “Sicario” means bad, spooky stuff (mostly killing Mexicans) by bad, spooky men in bad, spooky places (just Mexico, really).
Playing a bit like the sleazy cousin of Zero Dark Thirty and the brooding, self-serious cousin of The Counselor, Sicario is a loaded – but, as Amy Nicholson aptly pointed out – poorly-aimed gun that tracks FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she is recruited/subtly manipulated by the smug, mysteeerious, flip-flop wearing Matt Graver (a slimy Josh Brolin) into joining a secret, possibly CIA, squad whose sole purpose is using any means necessary to take down the Mexican cartel. A group responsible for a horrific prologue that left members of Kate’s team dead and/or traumatized by the rotting corpses decorating the walls of the safe house they breached looking to save hostages. Also along for the ride is another mysteeeerious man, Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro, fascinating as always), whose function beyond “nihilistic philosophy major” is unclear but slowly reveals itself as Matt pulls Kate deeper into the vast, wild and disturbing pit of immorality and corruption that is America’s War on Drugs.
Perhaps what’s most frustrating to me about Sicario is that – a lot of the time, anyway – it’s very, very good. The trio of performances are quite strong – Blunt captures Kate’s moral erosion with steel and vulnerability, and Brolin funnels Matt with a sly, casual smugness that is very entertaining until he’s suddenly scary while Del Toro puts up an unmoving mug with an underlying danger hiding just behind it. All the while Deakins, who has expertly shot here before in No Country For Old Men, skillfully photographs the American Southwest as a bleak, overwhelming wilderness with absolute horror hiding just beneath the surface. (Walls aren’t the only things decorated with corpses by the films end.) Deakins’ sharp lens capturing that ugly disparity, while Joe Walker’s excellent editing muddles it all together so we, and Kate, can’t tell which way is up by the time we reach the films best setpiece – a tunnel raid that sees the squad disappearing into the landscape, into the depths of hell, and trying as hard as they can (thermal/night vision? doesn’t matter) to see with no success. Attempting to truly face, and hopefully solve, the war on drugs is erratic and futile, the film argues, a stance the film hammers and hammers and hammers – Jóhan Jóhannsson’s pounding score working double time – until it’s exhausted you into submission… right before derailing itself into an extended revenge piece on duality and the invasion of domesticity, featuring some truly embarrassing moralizing in the form of a corrupt but ultimately human Mexican police officer that sees Villeneuve reach Babel levels of manipulative function. (Thanks, Kempenaar!) “He’s kind!! And a dad!!” Villeneuve practically shouts from the back of the theatre, lowering his hammer, satisfied.
What’s more unfortunate is that in choosing to tell this particular story – one on some level about the ways in which the bad, spooky (conservative) men disempower the weak, misguided liberals – the end result is Blunt’s role in the picture being reduced to witness and victim. Flip a coin. She’s a surrogate for us as we sink into the pit of men doing man stuff, which, mind you, is (sort of) the point the film is making but that’s why it hurts when the films last act immerses itself in these men and how effective they can be. It’s not a glorification but it is lazy. Sorry Villenueve, but sidelining Blunt, and rendering much of the film dramatically inert just to reiterate, “there are no clean answers!! this is life!! men!!” isn’t worth it. That’s not to say the few ideas Sheridon’s script and Villeneuve’s eye share aren’t worth mining – I could talk about the tunnel sequence, and its larger implications, for days – but there’s too much of a disparity between its politics/themes and its need to be an effective thriller. Every frame of Sicario is packed with beauty and dread, but, like the safehouse in the prologue, there’s an unwanted ugliness just behind the surface. Undoubtedly this is partially the point (life is ugly, man!!), but it’s a cheap, lazy point that uses none of the intelligence and panache expressed in the rest of the film.