Review: Sicario

SicarioThe promotion for Sicario emphasises the meaning of the word: ‘In Mexico, sicario means hitman’. The film even begins with the etymology of the word and finishes with what sicario means in Mexico: Hitman. There will be hitmen. It’s a promise made by director Denis Villeneuve in his commitment to telling a story against the backdrop of the war on drugs in Mexico. But it’s not really a film about drugs or hitmen (or sicario if you’re in Mexico), it’s about reinforcing the point that the world is a terrible place, but you already knew that, but there’s something worthwhile on this path of darkness, although a little shallow, violent and bleak for the sake of bleakness, which could be confused with quality.

FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) volunteers for a government task force with the mission to dismantle drug cartels operating on the border of America and Mexico. Of course, with the American government involved not all is what it seems.

Sicario knows how to induce an anxiety attack, there are several waiting to be unleashed by the set-pieces Villeneuve crafts, mainly on the streets of Mexico that is presented as a slum built on a valley of death where everything—and everyone—is waiting to kill you. Overhead shots of a convoy of black SUVs snaking their way across the border to Mexico evokes imagery the American authorities’ overzealous approach to foreign policy that’s like having unprotected sex with other countries. Once in Mexico the cars bounce around on decrepit streets, local police provide escort but only for appearance sake—with the stink of corruption the police presence only increases the tension.  Villeneuve shoots these sequences like he’s gunning for Sicario to be defined in the dictionary under ‘thriller’; it’s more than worthy in these moments. Artistry is added by cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who gives the scenery a scorched, sticky, sandblasted look of urban decay in the city environments. Vast open plains of desert and mountains resemble the mouths of monsters as Government agents fly overhead to their next destination in private jets. For all the parts of Sicario that don’t quite click it’s reassuring that, at least, Deakins understands a Hellmouth is open in this part of the world.

What’s odd about Sicario is how it’s resembles a premium cable television drama—especially HBO, this could easily be packaged as True Detective season three. By all means, this is a compliment and a reflection of how level the playing field between film and television is in 2015. It’s hard not to think about how much Sicario is riffing on the edgy crime dramas occupying television screens (keeping people at home away from cinemas); is it trying to keep up or just a repetition of the same drab detective stories? It’s a bit of both and Sicario suffers from having to sustain the momentum of the plot and balance a loose bunch of gruff characters, barley fleshed out, but given gravitas by the cast.

A worry is how capable Sicario could function without the presence of Blunt’s character, Macer, who is a surrogate for the audience to experience the horrors of the war on drug cartels with fresh eyes. Macer functions more like passive observer than a protagonist. The disposable nature of the character plays into the central drive of the film and how the authorities use people in the quest for a greater objective. In Sicario, it’s about restoring order in the criminal code and how illegal activity is sanctioned by government agencies—the approach is like applying a Hello Kitty Band-Aid to a hemorrhaging artery. In this context, Macer is perfect as an agent with a blank slate of morals that’s not there to be etched, but rather, smashed. There’s also a vibe that because an FBI agent is a female, her experience is more horrid because the film suggests women are inherently weaker than men—Sicario thrives on testosterone and Blunt is the only lead female character for an obvious reason—and we are expected to be more shocked by what the character is experiencing because she’s a woman. There’s even a scene where Mercer is being screened to join the government task force and she’s quizzed on marriage and relationships in a condescending way. Blunt’s performance manages to prevent Sicario from resting on this ideal, and instead, her reactions are representative of a person dealing with extreme violence and lawlessness with a still functioning moral compass. She becomes damaged as a person, not as a gender, despite screenwriter Taylor Sheridan crafting a character who is defined solely by her job—there’s not much of a character for Blunt to work with but maybe that’s Sheridan’s intention of portraying a career driven female FBI agent as nothing but a badge and a gun.

There are times where Villeneuve and Sheridan subtly ridicule the patriarchy that is exemplified by the relaxed vibe of Josh Brolin’s flip–flop wearing government rep who acts more like a surfer waiting for the next break than an armed agent about to kick in the door of a drug lord. The laid-back vibe of Brolin’s character is frightening when witnessing what his job entails and a confronting speech he gives to Macer about how America does business shows he’s more than acutely aware—and comfortable—with his chosen profession. And then there is Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro, a man of few words who spends most of the film acting like a human MacGuffin. Sicario shifts towards Alejandro’s side of the story as the mysteries are revealed, and it’s a shabby tale of revenge, but del Toro’s intimidating minimalist performance has impact.

Sicario has all the posturing of a hard-boiled tale about drugs (that’s not really about drugs), beautifully captured, worth the heart palpitations, but inherently empty. And it’s not an emptiness that thrives of nihilism to drive home a point, it’s just serviceable desolation.

Cameron Williams

The Popcorn Junkie