Unlike many other non-US directors who transition to Hollywood, Denis Villeneuve managed to not only gain a wide audience, but he manages to maintain his artistic sensibilities as a storyteller. With Prisoners, he made one of the best films of 2013 and he continued to delight with Enemy the year after. His latest is the highly anticipated cartel thriller, Sicario, which is written by Taylor Sheridan. The story follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent recruited by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to be a part of a government task force assigned to deal with the nasty underbelly of the drug cartels.
Out of all of Denis Villeneuve’s films that I’ve seen (the only ones I haven’t seen are his first two films), Sicario, at least upon first viewing, will likely go down as possibly my least favorite. I think Sicario, while by no means a bad film, is a bit disappointing considering the caliber of film that he has released for the past few years. It goes without saying that Sicario is an exceptionally well-crafted film, the direction, the performances, the music, it all elevates the material. In fact, it elevates it so much so that I completely understand why many have sung the film’s praises. Roger Deakins’ work as the DP is wonderful as usual, Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is relentlessly moody and Joe Walker’s editing is meditative and deliberate. When the film is on, when there’s tension building, when the gunfire begins, whenever Benicio Del Toro takes center stage as the mysterious Alejandro, it straight up rocks.
Per usual with Villeneuve’s films, he takes a fairly familiar story or a set-up and uses it to explore deeper themes and thought-provoking ideas that make you think about the subject matter at hand with more complexity. With Prisoners for example, the film deconstructs the idea of the traditional American father figure, as well as making clever uses of spiritual/religious subtext through a morality tale in the guise of a twisty detective story. Sicario doesn’t really have much to say. You know how sometimes you would have to write an essay for school, but you couldn’t really come up with a whole lot of stuff to put in your supporting paragraphs, so you basically repeat the same sentence over and over in different ways to make it seem like you have a lot of points being made? That is Sicario. It tells us that the war on drugs is a bleak situation that brings the worst out of both sides of the border, blurring the lines between the good guys and the bad guys…and that’s kind of it. Therein lies the problem. The film has a decent point to make, but the approach is very surface level and never goes as deep as it clearly tries to. It results in the film being a bit repetitive similarly to the other big disappointment from a month ago, Black Mass. You get a scene where Kate asks Matt what they’re doing, he gives a vague answer, she reluctantly takes part in a mission, things go crazy – not particularly by-the-book, Kate yells at Matt and Matt tells her “that’s just what we gotta do in this world.”
The set-up is solid and familiar enough, Kate volunteers in the hope to take down the evil cartel guys only to realize that she is in way over her head. The thing is her arc in the film is as predictable as can be, even down to a frustrating (for the wrong reasons) ending scene with her and Alejandro. And that’s not the only painfully predictable part. There are two to three randomly placed scenes in the film disconnected from the main story that show a father in Mexico who works in the police force, and they’re quick looks at his humble home life with his wife and son, whom he obviously cares for deeply. The payoff for these scenes are so telegraphed that I was just wanting the movie to hurry up and get to the point, to where it finally does pay off in the exact way I thought it would in the final act. That, plus the unrelenting bleakness and hopelessness on display, makes the film an exhausting experience at times. Another bizarre thing the film does is how it seems to push Kate to the side for almost the entire final act to focus more on Alejandro, which is a strange narrative choice that I can’t quite understand aside from the fact that Alejandro is probably the coolest character and Kate sure as hell isn’t going to accomplish anything substantial. Then there are also some really dumb moments like a scene where Kate is doing a Google Image search on cartel violence and acting horrified, as if she had no idea what to expect and I found it weird that her friend, Reggie (played by Daniel Kaluuya), another FBI agent, is seemingly welcomed in on supposedly top-secret missions with Matt’s task force like it’s no big deal.
It may sound like I’m being harsh, but that’s only because the filmmaking behind the otherwise mediocre writing is so stellar. Tonally and stylistically, the film owes a lot to Apocalypse Now. Both films explore moral decay in the most extreme of human ugliness. Kate is like Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, Matt is like Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore and even the film’s action highlight like the Ride of the Valkyries sequence happens fairly early on with a riveting extraction sequence. Denis Villeneuve obviously knows how to set a mood, and I like how he makes it feels like you’re moving closer and closer to hell itself with each passing minute. But unlike Apocalypse Now, Sicario isn’t willing to go full blown surreal and nightmarish with its imagery, it keeps things grounded, which is fine enough, but it does keep the film a step below what it’s trying to achieve.
There is a lot to like, love even, about Sicario. Denis Villeneuve manages to show that his level of craftsmanship is masterful enough to make a not-so-great screenplay watchable and compelling enough to at least make it a worthwhile cinematic experience. The suspense is built with precision, the visuals are stunning, the music is anxiety-inducing and the performances are great across the board. If only the hard work was in service of a screenplay that was smarter and more willing to dig deeper into the ugliness of the drug war past making general statements on the moral grey area that is not as noteworthy as it used to be. Perhaps a re-watch would help the film, but as of now, I don’t consider it a masterpiece, and definitely not one of 2015’s best. Lionsgate has shown interest in doing a sequel, which might seem like an interesting idea, but I don’t see what it would add thematically. The sequel has not been greenlit yet, so there’s a chance it might not happen, but it’s certainly an interesting development. Either way, I still think that Denis Villeneuve is the best possible choice for helming the (equally as unnecessary) Blade Runner sequel. 70 / 100