Although not mutually exclusive by any means, I think Denis Villeneuve would prefer to consider Sicario more of a political statement than a run-of-the-mill thriller. Without a doubt, exploitative genre movies can be political, but Villeneuve’s films are distinct because of their approach to violence. A gunshot, a corpse, a suggestion of torture: violent elements associated with genre are not to “thrill” but to meditate on their psychological and social impact.
Sicario mostly avoids the Movie Logic associated with its genre for a dour and disturbing dilemma: act illegally and amorally to put pressure on the cartels, or react legally and morally with little influence. It seems that the only way to fight against evil is to also become it (a Nietzchean theme also prominent in Prisoners).
Kate Macer (a fantastic Emily Blunt), the film’s moral compass, is an FBI agent who volunteers to join a task force to stop drug cartels from laundering money and distributing drugs. The desensitized Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) head the team while Macer, moral and by-the-book, struggles to justify their illegal and violent techniques, which allegedly, are a deplorable means to a worthwhile end.
Sharing thematic concerns with Incendies and to a slighter extent Prisoners and Polytechnique, Villeneuve is considering the cyclical nature of violence. Grounded in a more political context, his insights from his earlier work are applied to US foreign policy and more specifically how the government deals with Mexican drug cartels, which the film would argue is fascinatingly similar to the cold-war origins of the Taliban.
In Villeneuve’s films, murder, torture and rape are not merely a plot device; it’s always linked to something bigger, an overarching system of injustice or a lasting psychological impact. This idea is consistently engraved in Sicario’s worldview. In the film’s strongest and most affecting moment, a barrage of American army vehicles intrude through the Mexican streets as the city’s residents go about their quotidian lives: playing sports and lounging on the streets. A few blocks down the road, decapitated bodies hang from the top of an overpass as the mundane lives of these citizens are constantly interrupted by violence. By juxtaposing aerial shots comparing the orderly arrangement of American homes and the chaos of a nearby Mexican town, Villeneuve is constantly linking the violence of the War On Drugs with the impact it has within the Mexican borders.
Working from a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, Villeneuve raises the bar for the material, but sometimes we see him struggle to hold it up. There are far too many clichéd scenes where Brolin spews wisecracks, and although these sequences feel detached because they aren’t played for laughs, Villeneuve is subverting his genre elements before almost entirely succumbing to them. Del Toro’s Alejandro becomes a one-man army as he fulfills the prophecies laid out by the blatant foreshadowing, but there is little beneath the two-dimensional character. Like the subplot with a boy living on a border city, Alejandro is a pawn for Sheridan’s themes, not a well-rounded person we can latch onto.
But from the opening moments, in one of the most disturbing set-pieces I can remember, Sicario starts with taut intensity and rarely lets up until its tragic and perceptive denouement. The action sequences are deftly conceived from all technical standpoints: the soundtrack’s deafening brass score is haunting, and Roger Deakins’ rapturous cinematography ominously hints at the characters’ dead conscience with shots of dead landscapes. Villeneuve’s work always displays a Kubrickian attention to detail, and although some of that is on display in Sicario, I can’t help but think this film is thinner than Enemy, slighter than Prisoners, and less affecting than Incendies. Sicario is a disappointingly good film from one of our greatest directors.