Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve has steadily developed a penchant for assembling intense movies heavy with bleak atmosphere and unnerving suspense. The one-two punch of 2013’s “Prisoners” and “Enemy” showed the versatility with which Villeneuve could apply his skill, seamlessly shifting from an ensemble investigative drama to a high concept psychological thriller. “Sicario” finds Villeneuve back in “Prisoners” territory with another dour tale of cops and criminals grappling with shadowy circumstances, and effectively translates his abilities to a bigger canvas — the project may wind up being his transitional moment to greater mainstream success with his upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel in the works — but as much as it testifies to Villeneuve’s strengths, “Sicario” lacks the same refinement on the level of its plot.
With a menacing tone that holds tight from start to finish, the movie finds Villeneuve entering Michael Mann territory, building a grim story of cartel warriors on both sides of the Mexican border and the baffled innocent officer caught in the crossfire. Aided by icy turns from Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin, the taut narrative marks another fine example of Villeneuve’s expert craftsmanship. At the same time, the sheer density of filmmaking talent makes its facile story stand out.
Above all, “Sicario” is a movie defined by viscerally-charged sequences, starting with its first one, when officer Kate (Blunt) leads an ill-fated raid on a safe house in the Arizona desert only to find the place rigged with bombs. While shaken, she escapes unscathed, at which point she’s recruited by smarmy CIA agent Matt (Brolin) to help him with a mysterious new assignment. Suspicious but at the mercy of her superiors, she’s told they’re headed to a training camp in El Paso and instead finds herself shipped to Mexico on a private jet with Matt and the scowling Alejandro (Del Toro). Once there, she witnesses the CIA’s trenchant and ethically dubious tactics as they mount an ambitious campaign to track down one of the major drug lords of the region.
Regularly confronting her new colleagues for explanations, she’s instead left in the dark, though Villeneuve includes just enough scenes of the hardened Alejandro torturing captured criminals, Matt leers from the sidelines, to show the depths of moral ambiguity in which Kate has been thrust. She knows she’s a resource, but given scant details, starts to feel more like pawn than player.
But while those instincts are spot-on, “Sicario” never gives her the opportunity to do much with them. Blunt’s frightened gaze is no match for Del Toro’s intimidating physicality or the winking, scheming Brolin. While much of the movie unfolds from Kate’s perspective, her central role winds up being a complete misnomer.
The stage initially seems to be set for a “Silence of the Lambs”-style feminist thriller involving a intrepid woman at odds with her gruff, male-dominated workforce and taking charge. But no matter how many times she peppers Matt and Alejandro with questions, she remains the passive spectator in a web of conspiracies and mounting investigative strategies that — once revealed — amount to little more than a simplistic indictment of the ubiquitous corruption at hand.
Nevertheless, Villeneuve maintains a consistent forward momentum aided to a large degree by cinematographer Roger Deakins’ sophisticated widescreen shots that cram each frame with moody details. A masterful shootout set on a highway is dynamically assembled with pulsing momentum, built from a rich blend of overhead shots, frantic closeups and abrupt bursts of violence. Few modern directors assemble sheer tension with such mechanically precise finesse.
However, despite the Mann-like tropes on display — action mainly set at night, with scheming figures grinning through the shadows — “Sicario” never develops the depth of, say, “Heat” or “Collateral,” and no amount of first-rate images or Jóhann Jóhannsson’s throbbing score can shift focus from the tiresome nature of the central drama. Although it has a few surprises in store as it builds to a pair of unnerving climactic showdowns, they suffer from tired backstories and basic assumptions about the brutish villainy that reduces the material to the stuff of half-baked pulp fiction.
For some viewers, that may be enough. But the problem with “Sicario” stems from a contradiction between its serious tone, which proclaims the gravitas of its scenario, and the simplistic ideas it presents. Compared to the recent documentary “Cartel Land,” a disturbing non-fiction look at cartel showdowns between cops and vigilantes riddled with the ambiguities of lawless territory, “Sicario” feels like a dime store treatment of a topic that deserves better. Matthew Heineman’s recent Sundance premiere portrays the full scope of the drug war’s ecosystem and finds sophisticated, conflicted personalities in every corner. It’s a layered story in which sympathies shift depending which perspective takes charge.
In “Sicario,” there’s only the weak-willed moralists and shameless law-breakers, and none of them seem remotely genuine. Though Villeneuve magnifies the pervasive dread surrounding the modern drug war, he’s better at conveying the thrill of creeping through that battlefield than the complex set of interests sustaining it.
“Sicario” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. Lionsgate will release it nationally on September 18.