Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Director Denis Villeneuve’s previous movies, “Incendies” and “Enemy” (I haven’t seen the 2013 “Prisoners”), were unabashed art films, as structurally showy as they were meticulous in their aural and visual detailing. In “Sicario,” written by Taylor Sheridan, Villeneuve jettisons most of the formal flamboyance but retains the art film aesthetic. The result is a meat-and-potatoes crime picture with suggestive, unsettled undertones. Shot by Roger Deakins to emphasize the hungry darkness nibbling at the edges of the frame, and blessed with a roiling, string-and-drum-heavy score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, the movie has a weirdly immersive effect. Watching it, you may feel as though you’re sinking into something untoward.
That’s part of Villeneuve’s strategy: The characters in “Sicario” are anything but rooted. Players in the Mexican drug trade, they traverse the U.S.-Mexico border with an ease that belies their wariness. They know they’re on unsure ground, and that to pause for reflection is to risk something worse than maroonment. Though he flirts with topicality (the screenplay is rife with references to immigration and the War on Drugs), Villeneuve has little interest in political point scoring. This was clear in “Incendies,” in which the Lebanese war of the ’80s was used to show the spiritual effects of armed conflict, without appeal to issues or factions. (It’s a movie about war with a capital “W.”) The themes in “Sicario” seem to spring from the same urge to broaden and generalize: It’s a Conradian riff on the precariousness of civilization.
As it is in the work of Cormac McCarthy, Sam Peckinpah, and countless others, the Mexico of “Sicario” is the antithesis of Anglo America — the refutation of our tidy notions of law and order. As an idea this is overly simplistic, but it’s fertile ground for a director with Villeneuve’s taste for the mythic. You can sense the director’s excitement in staging his key set pieces, a traffic jam assassination attempt on the road into Juarez, and an exploration of a smuggling route burrowed into the dusty terrain of the border area. In the former, fish-out-of-water agent Kate Macer is initiated into the world of casual warfare. Editor Joe Walker teases out the implications of the situation — the cars, the painstakingly slow movement, the mundane-sinister passengers — until you feel, along with Macer, on edge, overexposed, vulnerable. It’s a boffo suspense sequence. But it’s the latter set piece that provides the movie with its thematic and narrative crescendo. It shows us Macer crossing the line, both physically and morally, as she literally descends into the underworld. Villeneuve and Deakins signal her moral discombobulation by varying the style of their footage: We see the action from an objective, naturalistic perspective, in the subjective ghost imagery yielded by night-vision technology, and from the God-like perspective of a satellite. The sequence is notable for the way in which it maintains identification with Macer while slowly subverting her point of view. When she emerges on the tunnel’s far side, in Mexico, her authority within the story is overthrown: She’s knocked off her feet, rendered unable to proceed, and the narrative coalesces around a different character.
One of the biggest missions of contemporary Hollywood consists in finding meaty roles for women within genres that are traditionally male. It isn’t always easy: Filmmakers tend to either overcompensate, as in the recent “Star Wars” film, in which the central uberfraulein remains untainted by sexist paradigms, like the character arc, or they’re the subjects of awkward compromise. “Zero Dark Thirty” provides an example of the latter problem: Its female agent, played by Jessica Chastain, feels tacked onto the main narrative. Contrary to what you’ve heard, “Zero Dark Thirty” director Kathryn Bigelow isn’t particularly interested in women: She’s a poet of machismo. And her movie is predictable in the way it makes Chastain’s Maya feel like an addendum to the images of hunky guys busting heads and capably filling out their ACUs. Villeneuve and Sheridan have found a way to avoid that pitfall: They make Macer’s failure to play with the boys, and her inability to grok the moral implications of her mission, into the movie’s focal point. Consequently, “Sicario” is anything but a validation of Macer’s skill and authority. She’s playing the dumb rookie, the Ethan Hawke role from “Training Day,” and the screenplay repeatedly batters her, repudiates her, subverts her. Eventually we discover that the story we’re watching isn’t Macer’s at all; it belongs to Benecio Del Toro’s lone-wolf assassin. The revelation leaves Macer seeming like an intruder in someone else’s movie.
Is this kind of switcheroo too cute — too meta — to work within the framework of a popular entertainment? Possibly. But it didn’t bother me while watching “Sicario,” perhaps because our realization of Macer’s dispensability dovetails so neatly with the movie’s themes. Broadly speaking, “Sicario” is about Macer’s awakening to context. And by walking the viewer through a similar awakening, Villeneuve manages to tweak formal expectations while bringing his movie to a fairly satisfying close. If, at the end of “Sicario,” Macer realizes she’s an inconsequential player in a system she hasn’t fully understood, we realize we’ve been duped by the movie’s surface story. If you can accept the trick, it’s a fairly neat one.
Nevertheless, I regret that Villeneuve didn’t find a way to give greater life to Macer’s disillusionment, to bring it farther into the center of the movie’s drama. As it stands, Del Toro’s character enjoys the big dramatic moment, while Macer is treated like a pawn in a game of chess, sacrificed to facilitate a big move. This may be Villeneuve’s intent, and I’m certainly happy to see a filmmaker buck trends to comment on, rather than cater to, the present hunger for female-empowerment parables. But there’s something incomplete about Macer, something that nags after the movie’s end. Is this a problem? It may be for lead actress Emily Blunt. She gives a nervy, alert performance, one that builds on her grave delicacy, but it’s an almost wholly physical performance. It has to be, because the screenplay gives most of its good lines and character moments to Del Toro and, in the role of Macer’s superior, Josh Brolin. (They’re terrific, delivering movie star charisma in broad, exciting strokes.) Maybe this isn’t so much a problem as a difficulty. “Sicario” is so persuasive that it’s easy to excuse a few difficulties.