Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has cornered the market on exploring human suffering, alienation and cruelty in films like Incendies, Polytechnique, and Prisoners (not to mention profound existential angst in Enemy). So, it makes sense for his new movie, Sicario, to tackle a subject that is not only timely but almost perfectly suited to his dark designs: the physical, tactical, and political no-mans-land of drug smuggling along the U.S.-Mexican border. But while Sicario fits well into his bleak filmography, and features some of the most intense sequences in any motion picture released this year, the movie keeps its characters at a distance and fails to land the kind of searing emotional gut punch that made some of those earlier films so devastating.
The movie’s opening sequence — the discovery of a Mexican cartel house filled with rotting corpses and other deadly surprises in a small border town in Arizona — sets the mood right away, and the slowly building sense of dread is only increased as FBI agent and kidnap response team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited by the jovial yet vaguely sinister Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to join a special task force operating on the border. Also on the team is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious, nearly silent operative from Colombia whose allegiances seem to shift by the moment. It’s soon very clear — following a black-ops mission to illegally snatch a cartel operative from the town of Juarez and bring him back to the States — that Kate has gotten herself into a zone of lawlessness and horror where her ideals and her soul might not remain intact.
And that’s where Sicario begins to fall apart. For at least the first half of the film, Kate is kept in the dark by Graver and Alejandro — and even her superiors back at Quantico — about the nature of the mission. Thus, she remains a mostly passive figure for much of the narrative, reduced to either being a back-up shooter or shouting variations on “What the fuck just happened?” to her unsavory comrades. Since we are led to believe in the opening scenes that this is her story, we need her more fully engaged and active — which she never really becomes, so the choices she may have to make between her notions of right and wrong when it comes to fighting a wholly amoral enemy like the cartels don’t feel earned. Since it’s clear even to the audience, starting with that mission into Juarez, that Graver and Alejandro are not exactly staying in the legal lines, Kate also comes across as much more naïve than an agent of her standing should be.
Taylor Sheridan’s script, unfortunately, only enhances that mistake in the film’s third act, which suddenly and inexplicably shifts the point of view completely to Alejandro as he embarks on a bold mission that finally reveals something about his past as well. It’s almost as if Sheridan and Villeneuve had nowhere else to go with Kate, so they abandon her completely and focus on the character — the “sicario” (assassin) of the title, as it turns out — who happens to be the most compelling of the story precisely because he takes action, and because his own moral underpinnings seem so ambiguous.
Plus when you have Benicio Del Toro simply knocking that role out of the park — in arguably his best performance in several years — everyone else sort of fades into the background, but not without throwing the rest of the film out of balance. That’s not to say Blunt isn’t good; she is very good, exhibiting both toughness and fragility, but she can only do so much with the role the way it is written. Same goes for Brolin, who is watchable and magnetic as always in a part that is even more undercooked than Blunt’s. Even in a movie about shadow operatives, you can only have so many ciphers.
Despite its flaws, however, there is much to recommend in Sicario if you have the stomach for it. As we mentioned earlier, the film is suffused in tension and an almost claustrophobic dread despite the wide open spaces of the border, and set pieces such as the Juarez mission and a journey into tunnels beneath the desert will give you white knuckles all the way (by contrast, Del Toro’s climactic operation almost seems to happen too easily). There is a sense of impending doom and horror that is, sadly, all too appropriate to the subject matter and the film’s themes, a feeling that is greatly magnified by Roger Deakins’ simply stunning cinematography. The 11-time Oscar nominee (when is this guy gonna get his trophy already?) casts the movie in both hyper-real brightness and rich, textured shadows, making Sicario a cinematic feast even if some of its content causes you to lose your appetite.
“You will not survive here. You are not a wolf. This is the land of wolves now,” says Alejandro at one point to Kate, summing up both her experience and the nature of the battle going on at the border — a battle that encompasses not just drug lords and special agents, but politics, money, government officials and, of course, the innocent citizens on both sides who are the ultimate victims. There is so much powerful material to mine in this story, but Sicario reminded me of another movie tackling one of the huge issues of our time: Syriana. Like that drama about the intersection of oil, geopolitics, and terrorism did, Sicario keeps us at arm’s length by never sticking with a point of view or allowing us to truly feel what its protagonist is supposed to be feeling. We remain just outside the wolves’ den, listening to their howls.
Sicario is out in theaters now.