Thursday, October 8, 2015
Sicario: A Land with No Laws, a War with No Heroes
Sounds fun, right? You'd be surprised. Yes, as a political think piece, Sicario is powerful, persuasive, and even enraging. But what makes it a great movie—something more than just a forcefully conceived polemic—is that it is also crackerjack crime fiction. Directed by Denis Villeneuve from a script by Taylor Sheridan, Sicario is a pulse-pounding piece of prime-cut entertainment, one that thrills just as much as it chills. It is both literally and metaphorically explosive, and while its suffocating bleakness may get you down, its taut plotting and bracing technique will knock you out.
Our point of entry into this dark and dazzling world—as well as the one person we meet who still clings to a glimmer of humanity—is FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, continuing her appealingly rugged, no-nonsense phase that began with Looper and progressed spectacularly in Edge of Tomorrow). She's the leader of the SWAT team during that aforementioned raid, which begins with a battering ram blasting through a door, escalates with some automatic-weapons fire, and ends with a big bang. It's a quick and brutal sequence, one that sets the tone for the extreme and efficient bloodshed to come. After Kate picks herself up off the dirt, she finds herself assigned to an elite task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, supremely amoral), a Department of Defense liaison (so he says) who likes guns and hates lawyers. Their objective? "To dramatically overreact."
That glib remark raises Kate's eyebrows, but those dead bodies are still lingering in her mind's eye, so she swallows her suspicion and tags along with Graver, first to El Paso, then into the lion's den that is Juarez. Along the way they collect Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, giving his best performance since Traffic), an enigmatic "advisor" with a curt tongue and flinty eyes. First seen gliding into a private jet in a bespoke tan suit, then shuddering during a nightmare, Alejandro has his secrets, along with the faint aura of a tragic past. But if you think he's troubled, wait till you see what he has in store for the rest of us.
You'll be waiting awhile. One of the strangest and most tantalizing things about Sicario is its patience, as well as its stinginess with exposition. Villeneuve carries his cards close to his chest, which means he refuses to hold your hand, a refreshingly confident approach that has the added benefit of bringing you inside Kate's strained headspace. She may have skills in the field—Blunt invests her with a supple physicality that is palpable but also vulnerable—but she's a naïf in the intelligence domain, and she is constantly playing catch-up. That's why, unlike your typical heroic superagent, Kate spends most of the movie in a state of frustrated impotence, angrily asking questions rather than meting out frontier justice. Why is she here? Whom does Alejandro work for? Where are they going? What are they doing?
Zero Dark Thirty, though it ends not with a single boom but with a spray of bullets.
Those bullets light a fire under Kate, whose constant objections to the task force's extralegal measures is another of Sicario's welcome conceits. Cinema (particularly the western) is littered with iconic antiheroes who discard procedure to catch the bad guys, so it's gratifying to meet a cop who actually wants to do things by the book. It's another indication that Villeneuve likes to paint in shades of grey, as is his bold, potentially alienating decision to intersperse Kate's chaotic adventures with the mundane goings-on of Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández, Noah Emmerich's partner on The Americans), a Juarez police officer. These scattered scenes, which typically involve little more than Silvio eating breakfast or mumbling with his soccer-playing son, are seemingly digressive, but while they lead to a major payoff, they also round out the film's context. There is nothing special about Silvio—he's just a regular guy caught in the crossfire—but his ordinariness is what makes his fate so powerful. And Sicario, in its willingness to depict consequences on both sides of the border, develops a point of view that is somehow at once specific and panoramic.
In either case, it's an ugly view, or it would be, if it weren't so damn beautiful. Working once again with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (who also lensed his similarly bleak Prisoners), Villeneuve snares you in his web of human cruelty via expertly composed frames and sleek camera moves. A sudden close-quarters combat scene between Kate and an unexpected foe crackles with danger, while another riveting sequence, in which the task force invades an all-important tunnel in the dead of night, is filtered exclusively through the team's goggles, alternating between the sickly green of night-vision and the alien crimson glow of thermal infrared. This level of superior craftsmanship extends to the film's aural elements; the sound design is punchy but precise, while Jóhann Jóhannsson's doomy score (a complete departure from his Oscar-nominated work on The Theory of Everything) is deeply unnerving, the booming drone augmenting the movie's atmosphere of rumbling disquiet.
"This is a land of wolves now," a character tells Kate at one point. It isn't a threat, or even a warning, so much as a blunt statement of fact. And in mapping the frontlines of America's so-called drug war, Sicario recalls FX's unappreciated series The Bridge, as well as Netflix's Narcos, in which the word "sicario" (meaning hit man) is uttered regularly. But this smart, sensational movie is not imitating anything. It is entirely its own species: brutish, exhilarating, and uncompromising. It shows us a fictional land that feels all too real, one ruled by the pitiless forces of vengeance and greed. Kate tries her best, but her tremulous hope has no place in this stark world. The wolves have broken through the door.