Friday, October 02, 2015

Sicario


Sicario is a well-made and unremittingly intense drama about fighting drug cartels on the U.S.-Mexico border. Somewhere in the middle, I realized what was missing: politicians. Director Denis Villeneuve includes neither stock footage of U.S. Presidents declaring no-nonsense policy about drugs nor a character meant to stand in for the idea that America not only fights the spread of drugs but holds the moral high ground in doing so. The highest ranking official we meet is a bureaucrat played by Victor Garber who, when his agent Kate (Emily Blunt) questions the legality of an operation, can only say that “the boundary has been moved”. The boundary is in fact invisible for most of Sicario, which operates from the premise that Mexican drug cartels can now only be fought in the shadows via guerrilla tactics.

Taylor Sheridan’s script begins with a grabber of a sequence in which Kate and her F.B.I. colleagues stage an Arizona raid that leads to the discovery of a cartel mass grave. The shot of a government personnel vehicle smashing through a wall is a tidy way of summarizing the blunt U.S. policy that hasn’t worked to this point; indeed Kate later acknowledges to her skeptical partner (Daniel Kaluuya) that the Bureau’s anti-drug activities are ineffectual. Kate is tapped for a task force by an operative (Josh Brolin, with a wonderful sense of workaday optimism) whose motives aren’t immediately explained. She is soon across the border in Mexico with a team bringing back a high-value cartel target to the States, and helping (in a sequence of exquisitely controlled tension) fight off an attack at a crowded border crossing. Also on the team is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro in his best role in years), a sober Mexican who seems to be able to anticipate the cartel’s moves. Emily Blunt is well-cast as Kate, a pro who’s out of her depth in a world where she can’t show weakness. Blunt has played many types of roles in her career, but her recent reset as an action star would seem to be a positive development in regards to the types of stories we see onscreen. Kate’s frightening encounter with a seemingly friendly cop (Jon Bernthal) is one of Blunt’s best scenes, as it’s the moment the cartel’s reach becomes clear while also being proof of the physical work Blunt did for this role.

Denis Villeneuve directed the very dark films Prisoners and Incendies, the second of which I thought tipped over into silliness. Here a bleak worldview is hidden behind a sheen of government-sanctioned ordinariness, and Villeneuve is helped greatly to achieve this feeling by the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. The varieties of types of light in Sicario (a Mexican term for “hitman”) almost can’t be counted, from the institutional glare of a border turnaround point for immigrants to the evening glow outside a Texas bar. Sicario could easily disappear under a flurry of plot twists and scenes of interagency conflict, but Deakins grounds the movie in something specific while at the same time making the border battlegrounds feel like an alien world.

My only quarrel here is with a subplot involving a Mexican cop (Maximiliano Hernandez) that the script ties too neatly into the story of Alejandro, who of course has his own agenda. Alejandro’s story, when we hear it, is both too conventional and too thin. It’s explained rather than dramatized and it’s why the last act of Sicario doesn’t work quite as well as it could despite another well-done action set piece. Perhaps the comparison is too pat, but Sicario feels like the anti-Traffic in the way it suggests that humanizing the people on both sides of the drug war really makes no difference. The business will continue; the only surprise is how well we’ve all adapted to it.

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