Amazing to look at, amazing to listen to, yet just a bit underwhelming to really think about, “Sicario” Denis Villeneuve‘s Mexican drug cartel drama is superlatively strong in every conceivable way except story. The craft is impeccable, with Roger Deakins‘ cinematography and the spectacular Jóhann Jóhannsson score, with its memorable four-descending-note motif (finally trailer cutters have a riff to rival Hans Zimmer‘s BRAAM! for “grim foreboding”) conspiring to add levels of interest that keep you hungry for the next scene. But it’s a hunger never wholly satisfied.
Perhaps it’s the simple pitfall of the slow-burn thriller that if you are going to incrementally increase the tension throughout, and if you are going to overtly make the inner moral landscapes of your characters the real battle ground, then the climax needs to tower, shatter, and create a real sense that the investment has been paid off with interest and destinies have irrevocably changed. But “Sicario,” scripted by Taylor Sheridan, tries to have it both ways: it burns deeper as time goes on, teasing a major conflagration at the climax in which competing ideologies will finally have some sort of Armageddon. But Villeneuve is a filmmaker far more interested in ironic anticlimax than in bombast, and so opts for a rather unsatisfying ending that makes all that came before feel like a zero sum game. Ultimately, all that truly happens to the characters we care about is erosion, which is probably very truthful but feels neither particularly dramatic nor, in the context of a cartel procedural, particularly new.
It opens brilliantly, however, with a gorgeously shot set-piece action scene. Deakins’ pristine camera catches the motes of dust dancing in a beam of sunlight coming through a broken blind, before the entire wall of the house is staved in by an armored vehicle from which FBI agents pour out. The team leader, Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) narrowly escapes death, and discovers that the walls of the house are filled with bodies. It’s this action, and others she has taken in the past that lead to her being recommended for a move from the kidnap unit to a special operation, led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his so-called “bird-dog” Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) that is designed to bring down one of the top dogs in the Mexican Sonora Cartel. She accepts, without realizing that she is being brought in to some very shady ethical territory, and that her presence might be less for her tactical experience than a kind of inter-agency rubber stamping, allowing the CIA to act with impunity on both sides of the border.
It’s a courageous and interesting decision to make the focus of this cartel drama not the taking down of any particular guy or even the human cost of the drug war, but the competing ideologies as to how to best fight the War On Drugs. But ultimately it mires the film in so many shades of gray in this regard that it’s difficult to become quite as invested in the personal stakes for Kate as we should, and hard to even know exactly what the stakes are. Del Toro’s character is motivated by revenge, Brolin’s character by an end-justifies-the-means approach. But Blunt’s Mercer is saddled with being the film’s moral conscience, the letter-of-the-law abiding FBI agent who is horrified when she discovers these ethical breaches and refuses to take a hand in them. But what this ultimately means is Mercer sits out many of the action scenes, and so despite being the ostensible lead, rather struggles to make herself relevant to the story in its latter stages. Even Jessica Chastain, in nearest comparison point “Zero Dark Thirty,” got to own the story a little more by the close of the film.
In fact, it’s a daring kind of double-bluff, to make this character a woman (Villeneuve resisted pressure to change it to a man), but then to deny her the opportunity to be the “Edge of Tomorrow” badass we were all thinking of when we heard Blunt was cast. But if this role is not a triumph for feminism because of the beat-downs Blunt doles out, it certainly has merit for showing her, repeatedly, being able to take a punch. It neither makes an issue of her gender, nor ignores it (there’s one near-seduction scene that explicitly occurs because she is a woman), and in that way it feels like a very egalitarian approach, given some extra weight because of how often she is the only woman in a room, or car, or building full of men.
And as with other aspects of the filmmaking that go a long way to compensate for the story’s inadequacies, the performances are uniformly excellent, with every actor, even those in smaller roles like Daniel Kaluuya, getting tiny, lived-in moments that illuminate who they are and make them more than just “the partner” or “the driver.” He may not be top-billed, but Benicio del Toro has the kind of showy, lethal role that Best Supporting Actor nominations are made of, and the shift toward favoring his violent, revenge-motivated story by the end, while problematic for the shape of the film overall, is probably the only part of the film that really scratches the genre itch. Del Toro is a fascinating actor and so is never crude in the part, but as a role it has the remorseless, one-step ahead, cool factor of an all-out Tarantino antihero.
That said, Josh Brolin’s deceptively smiling, manipulative CIA guy is a treat, too: he is so good at being despicable that it gives us an idea of who to root for in the by-the-book vs break-the-law debate. But performance-wise, the film owes its greatest debt of gratitude to Emily Blunt. While Kate Mercer is, as mentioned, slightly marginalized toward the end of the film, Blunt makes the absolute most of what she is given, which is often wordless and must be communicated through eyes, physicality and body language. There is an inherent intelligence to the actress that gives her characters, even in repose, an inner life that no screenwriter could have written.
Villeneuve is truly a master director (just watch his choice of shots at times, like the big Brolin vs Blunt argument that happens entirely in a long shot with both their figures small in the frame), and there are curious flourishes in “Sicario” that remind us there’s a singular sensibility behind the camera. But the clean lines of his style, the kind of short-declarative-sentences in which he tells his stories suits some narratives more than others. Here, the bare bones feel familiar, and despite psychologically rich performances, and some cleverly staged action scenes there’s just not a great deal we can get purchase on, and very little to surprise. “Sicario” features neither the twistiness of “Prisoners” nor the weirdness of “Enemy,” and so is just a very solid procedural that eschews bigger drama in favor of a continual slow build… to nowhere in particular. Perhaps that build even extends beyond the film’s ending, to make us most excited, not for “Sicario” so much as for what Villeneuve does next. [B]