The war on drugs has been covered countless times on film. You’ve seen it in Steven Soderbergh’s award-winning “Traffic” and in recent documentaries like “The House I Live In,” “Narco Cultura,” and “Cartel Land.” While on the surface, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s latest drama, “Sicario,” is about the Mexican drug trade and the ruthless cartels that run it, but like all his films, underneath lurks something much shadowy. “Sicario” is a morally-bruising, unsettling and multi-layered heart-of-darkness drama that raises more questions than it answers while examining the cyclical echo of violence, powerlessness, and the lack of control in the fight. It’s all seen through the eyes of a up-and-coming and idealistic FBI agent (played by Emily Blunt) who is enlisted by an elite government task force official (Josh Brolin) for a clandestine mission. However, the job becomes ethically dubious when an enigmatic outside consultant (Benicio Del Toro) turns out to be partially leading the operation.
Nothing is as it seems, and “Sicario” also deftly subverts the notion of the strong female protagonist. Blunt isn’t just kicking ass and taking names, she’s a viewfinder into a world of horrors while still wrestling to control her destiny in a realm where allies and enemies become potentially clouded. Moreover, shot by the great Roger Deakins and featuring an intensely steel-eyed performance by Blunt, “Sicario” is nerve-wracking stuff; an anxiety-inducing movie that is so gripping you’ll be excused if you dig your fingers through your seat (read our review, but it has a much cooler take then mine).
“Sicario” is masterful, wall-to-wall muscular filmmaking, and with this stressful, disturbing drama, Villeneuve (“Prisoners,” “Enemy,” “Incendies”) completes a trilogy (or tetralogy even) about revenge, blunt trauma, and the emotional cost of violence. And Hollywood has noticed. It’s probably no wonder Ridley Scott and Alcon Entertainment have tasked him with directing the upcoming sequel to “Blade Runner.” Before that, Villeneuve’s got another untraditional-sounding sci-fi film, “Story Of Your Life,” starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, that’s already in the can.
We spoke to Villeneuve (all too briefly) during his blitz of press during the Toronto International Film Festival about “Sicario,” his upcoming sci-fi films, and more.
There’s lots to discuss here, but first and foremost, this movie is panic-inducing and intense in an incredibly visceral manner.
You know it’s the same feeling that I had when I read the screenplay. That heart-in-your-mouth feeling was in the script already, so it’s something that I just had to protect and take care of.
It was very, very involved and dark, and I remember that when I finished it I was like, “Is the world really like that today?” I felt doomed because I said, “…it’s gonna be dark again and it requires a lot stressful mental energy,” but I just fell in love with it at the time.
You felt compelled to tell it?
Yes, it’s just that inspiration is a strange thing. I felt that it was the same theme of what I was trying to explore with “Incendies” and “Prisoners.”
What drew you to want to tell the story, specifically? The political element, the human element?
Well, first of all, it’s a disturbing point of view. The thing I loved about it was that it was raising questions about the world we live in. And the idea of exploring the topic of cycles of violence, and this idea of the temptation of dreaming of having people like Alejandro [Benicio Del Toro’s character] that can solve problems for us — all that was intriguing. The idea of being very violent and that need of having that evil or anti-evil and just knowing that violence would solve nothing. Knowing that he will do things that are very questionable. I felt it was a very fascinating screenplay, and also above it all, one that had some very powerful cinematic moments. As a filmmaker, there would be big challenges for me. I felt that I was ready to try and do an action movie, but I was trying to find an action movie with depth — a meaningful action movie. I had it in my head for a while that it would be great to make a hybrid of arthouse film and action movie. And I just felt that [“Sicario”] was the perfect project for that.
It’s like an “Apocalypse Now”-style action movie. The tunnel scene is arguably akin to Kurtz’s journey down the river.
Well, you know, the thing is that it’s true that in a way there was some link [to “Apocalypse Now”]. For me it was a small war movie. A war movie where people will conduct their war with iPhones.
Is it true that originally in the script there was a man and that you guys changed it to a woman?
No, the truth is that it was written as a female from the start. People were amazed by the skill and how great the story was. But [screenwriter Taylor Sheridan] had been asked a few times to change the main character, but he said, “No,” because the story is the way he had figured it out. The story was inspired by a real female cop that Taylor met. She was his muse and he wanted to keep that in line as a source of inspiration. For obvious reasons, the way the story evolved, the character needed to be a woman.
When I came on board, Lionsgate didn’t ask me to change it. The only thing I knew is that I would have less money to do the project because I would not be able to hire Brad Pitt or a big male star. For me, just the fact that we are talking about it is meaningful. When it’s a man, then we are not talking about that. We will not talk about it if the lead was Josh Brolin. I think that for me, there is a need to have more and more women with lead parts that are not the wife or a secretary. I like the idea of bringing strong female roles on the screen. My next project [starring Amy Adams] will be again with female lead and, in some way, I am inspired by female lead parts and I love that.
It’s probably a nice change of pace for everyone, including the audience. But I’m curious, what is it about “Sicario” exactly that it has to be a female character for this story?
I think that when you look at it, there’s the idea that at one point, her femininity will be part of the story. I think that when people will see the film, it will make sense because of the relationship she had with other characters.
When Benicio del Toro says to Emily Blunt’s character at one point, ”You’re not a wolf,” is that meant to be taken as a gender thing? That the female doesn’t have that killer instinct?
I think that the idea is that it’s not about gender. For me, that’s about her human quality. It’s about also generation. She represents a younger, more hopeful generation in the movie, and that is what it’s more about.
Revenge, the value of human life, the emotional and psychological cost of violence — these are themes you often return to. What keeps you drawn to these ideas?
As a kid, I [noticed] the headlines of newspapers are the same, all the time. There’s a feeling of repetition. Repetition is hell. How can we get out of those cycles of violence? How come we are still today talking about peace in Israel? How come we’re not able to find a solution yet? Something that will bring peace in this part of the world? It’s the same in a lot of places in the world right now. How come we are not able to find peace? Violence will just create violence and more and more violence. It’s something that as a society and as countries and as human beings we all reproduce. It’s so tough to evolve and to become adult as societies. It’s a topic that I think is very inspiring. Most movies, revenge seems like something that brings a kind of pleasure — a kind of satisfaction and something that has a power to solve problems. I don’t think so. So I like to explore revenge in a different way.
The scene of revenge near the end of the movie which I won’t spoil — it’s devastating. And the character has zero satisfaction in it. There’s a cold closure at best.
Exactly. What I loved about the script is that you understand every character, you understand why every character does what they do. The lines are very precise. They are bringing you raison d’etres and yet they are bringing questions. It’s a movie that confronts our moral values. That’s why I love the screenplay so much. I think those are the best stories for me.
The way that it raises questions, but doesn’t satisfyingly answer any of them gives the movie a deeper sense of unease. It might be its greatest strength in fact.
I agree. I think that the world is very complex. I think that the movie is a good way to ask questions. To give answers, you would write a lot of books. You can maybe do the whole journey over several movies maybe but I think that I like to approach reality with humility. If I had all the answers, I’d be a happy director, a happier human being, but I don’t. So for now, I have more questions than answers.
Can you tell me about working with Roger Deakins again? There are just so many fabulous shots in the movie and the overall mood is so grim and claustrophobic. Also, do you have a favorite shot in the movie?
I feel that working with Roger is always a privilege. When I read the screenplay, the first thing I said after realizing I had fallen in love with it is, “It’s a very Roger Deakins project.” Because it was dealing with that kind of thematic darkness and we would need to approach it with dark nights of the desert. I just felt it would be a project that would be a good challenge for Roger. He got on board right away.
Favorite shot? Hmmm. Each shot with Roger has it’s own singularity and it’s own strength. That shot at the end of the film with Benicio del Toro’s face in the dark and the shadow and just us feeling the edge of his eyes — that’s a a pretty powerful close up.
You’re doing two sci-fi movies back to back.
Yes. I just finished “Story of Your Life” with Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. Then I think that little arthouse movie will be after.
[Laughs] You mean the “Blade Runner” sequel.
Yes, I’m sorry. That’s the kind of joke I can make with you.
It’s funny that you describe it like that, even in jest because when you think about “Blade Runner,” in many ways, it’s a large-scale arthouse film.
Exactly. I think that is one of the strong qualities of that movie, and that’s something that I will try to fight for, for the next one.
Roger is shooting that for you too?
Yeah, Roger wanted to do a sci-fi film. He had done a sci-fi film, a fantastic movie [the adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984” with John Hurt]. But we were dreaming to do a sci-fi film. That was one our first conversations I ever had with him, I remember was about sci-fi. Both of us wanted to try and do one, one day. So, I remember I went to his home and I didn’t have to convince him. He was super happy to help on the project and is very inspired.
Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford are confirmed for that?
Yes, yes. They are our actors, the people that are attached to the project right now.
“Story Of Your Life” is a sci-fi film about communication, right? That seems like an interesting way to approach sci-fi more cerebrally.
It’s how language influences your perception of reality. It’s a very beautiful and powerful story. It was important for me to do this because after “Polytechnique” and “Incendies,” “Prisoners,” and “Sicario,” I found that I need to take a break out of darkness. “Story of Your Life” is very emotional and more light, and I just needed to go there for a while.
But what’s it about exactly?
The movie starts with the landing of alien spaceships everywhere in the world, in random places. Places that have no meaning and there is nothing happening. It’s like a real positive invasion movie. The spaceships are landing, and nothing is happening. It’s the story of a linguist, played by Amy Adams, that is hired by the U.S. government, to go ahead and get in contact with those aliens inside and to try to understand why they are on Earth. It’s a very poignant story.
People have asked what “Sicario” is really about, beyond the plot. I don’t think that it’s very clear to some people.
There’s a lot of things, but for me it’s about this idea that, do you need to become a monster in order to fight another monster? Is there another way of doing things? And it’s about foreign policy — how do we deal with problems outside of the border, specifically our neighboring ones like Mexico.
One theme that sticks to me is the idea of powerlessness, which I think adds to the level of fear and dread in the movie. How we’re so powerless to so many horrors out there, even if we’re the law.
Well, that’s interesting, but Emily’s character sticks to her moral values. So there’s some hope. I think to someone who is optimistic, there’s a lot of work to do.
“Sicario” opens in limited release on September 18th and begins nationwide expansion on September 25th.