After the success of Prisoners and Enemy, it seems Canadian director Denis Villeneuve can do no wrong. His films might not be perfect, but they are commendably ambitious and more interesting than a lot of what Hollywood has to offer. This trend continues with his latest thriller about the war on drugs across the US-Mexico border, Sicario. It’s a film that I like more the more I think about it, even though it didn’t sit as well me in the theater.
FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is seemingly at the top of her game as the leader of a hostage rescue team. After discovering a whole mess of bodies in Arizona during what was supposed to be a rescue mission, she is asked to join an inter-agency task force focused on bringing down a powerful head of a Mexican drug cartel. Headed up by the casually brutal DoD advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious ex-Prosecutor Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) quickly realize that they are not being given the whole truth behind the mission. Kate struggles with the off-the-book nature of the mission, and ultimately has to decide whether or not she will go along with Alejandro and Matt’s questionable law enforcement methods.
A few things about this movie threw me for a loop. The first was the almost complete lack of information at the start of the film. From the moment Kate volunteers for this task force, she (and the audience) isn’t really told what’s going on. This makes the film incredibly hard to follow, in fact I didn’t fully get on board with it until about halfway through when Kate gets attacked in her hotel room. It’s not because I didn’t care what was going on before, but that this was the first time in the movie that the enemy they were going after was given a concrete form, even though that individual was not very high up in the food chain. Another thing that sort of held me up while watching this movie is keeping in mind other procedurals that show us similar things. Usually in these situations the heroes (and they are usually heroes) have no trouble tossing out the rule book as Matt and Alejandro have clearly done and following their own sort of morality. So to see Kate in this film go a different direction really kind of confused me for some reason.
By the final scene, the film reveals itself to be about the different moral paths that characters take. In the end, Kate actually does have to make a moral choice. I think if there had been some more material at the beginning showing Kate’s belief in adhearance to procedure or justice that the final scene would have been that much stronger, but one gets the sense that Villeneuve wants us to be a bit unsure as to whether or not what she does is “the right thing to do.” I didn’t necessarily want to know that, but I did want to know more concretely whether or not she thinks its the right thing. Because in so many of these stories, it seems very easy, and even morally upright, for characters to through the rule book out the window, and I guess I just wanted to see more of why it was so hard/objectionable for her in particular.
The film has been getting a bit of flack for portraying its only significant female character as somewhat passive, but that is really not the case at all. The only problem with the direction they take her in is that there are no other female characters in the movie to balance her out, save a few drug dealers’ wives that have minimal dialogue and characterization. The movie largely downplays the fact that she is really the only female in the movie; it’s not trying to make a point of it like say, The Silence of the Lambs is. However, she is always surrounded by men telling her to shut up and not ask any questions; it sort of low key suggests that the reason she was chosen for the mission in the first place was that she is a woman and people think that therefore they can push her around. It’s interesting to see that Matt and Alejandro are pretty resistant to her partner, a black man, accompanying her, but they let him anyway. I’m glad the film veered away from the “strong female character” stereotype but at the same time I wish we could have had some more women in the film, even if they didn’t have super significant roles.
These things may come across as complaints about the film, but they really aren’t, or at least they are not big ones. I really got drawn into this film and am sort of still mulling it over, but there are two things that I immediately got 100% behind: the score by Johann Johannsson and the cinematography by Roger Deakins. Both of these elements really make the film as intense as it is. Johannsson score bears some comparison to Hans Zimmer’s Inception BAAAHH, but less epic and more oppressive. It’s the best score for me so far this year. Deakins always turns in good work, and I could go on and on about it here, but I just want to point out one shot. There’s scene that takes place in a tunnel going under the border, and before this scene the team gets ready with all their tactical gear and night vision goggles and what not and we see them silhouetted against the sky. One by one, their black figures disappear beneath the horizon, sinking into an oblivion and seeming never to return. (#DeakinsOscar2015)
I haven’t seen his earlier movies, but since Villeneuve has become more popular I think this is his best one that I’ve seen. He deals with a similar moral ambiguity as in Prisoners but I think it works better here, both thematically and as entertainment. This movie is just much more even and engaging all the way through. It certainly ended on a much stronger note than Enemy did. I hope (and expect) we’ll be hearing more about this movie in February, and I’m very excited to see what Villeneuve tackles next.
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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