Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sicario (***)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve


Denis Villeneuve is a French-Canadian director, but his last three releases have been American films for American audiences (Enemy was shot in Canada, but it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, so it obviously had a lot of American appeal). All three films are shot with distinct color palettes and sharp imaging, so we know we're dealing with a competent filmmaker. Based on these three films alone, it's obvious that Villeneuve is interested in more nuanced deconstructions of evil. There are no white and black hats, no transparent storytelling structure set up to tell you flatly who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Not very American. It's exciting to see an outsider make films here and crush our dogmatic rules of pro/antagonism. Enemy was a succinct, terrific doppelganger film about a man's split lives; while Prisoners is another film about the male ego, the struggle of patriarchy in the face of tragedy, the incessant need for men to continue the appearance of strength in response to chaos. Neither film was perfect, but both films did defy expectations, and brought out excellent performances from Gyllenhaal. Villeneuve's latest film, Sicario, is his first American film to focus on a woman. That woman is played by Emily Blunt, an actress with a wide range of talent on screen, both emotional and physical. Blunt is surrounded by men throughout this film, Villeneuve makes it so. Even with a female in the lead, Villeneuve's films are still a man's world.

Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, a skilled officer who's specialty is high-danger missing persons cases. Working in Phoenix, a lot of her cases are often wrapped up in the business of nearby drug cartels connected to Mexican criminals across the nearby border. Kate knows the people responsible for these crimes, but can never find the appropriate evidence to make it stick. Between her and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), the workload is becoming bigger and more dangerous. The film opens on a bust that leads to a house with dozens dead bodies stored grotesquely within the linings of the walls. As they search to find necessary to connect to the notorious drug dealer Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino), a bomb explodes in the accompanying shed and kills two officers. It's clear that Kate's cases and the cases headed by narcotics are basically one in the same. After the gruesome explosion, Kate's office is inundated with a group from the Department of Defense interested in drafting her into their new project. This group is lead by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a smirking alpha who enters wearing sandals and a rules-don't-apply-to-me strut and basically tells Kate that she now has to volunteer for his task force. He blatantly asks her if she is married, and does little work hiding the fact that at least half of the reason that he's picking her is because she's attractive. Matt wants to bring down the head of a major Mexican drug cartel, Diaz's boss. Kate agrees to join, as long as she gets to bring Reggie along, and as long as she gets to bring the men responsible for killing two officers to justice.

It soon becomes clear that Kate will be kept in the dark for most of their mission. Matt informs her that they will be flying to El Paso, but leaves out the fact that they're doing so in order to then drive across the border to Juarez. On the plane, she finally meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a brooding, soft spoken man who doesn't seem too interested in conversation, let alone making friends. He's an outsider, not noticeably attached to any US or Mexican authority. When she presses him about his position, he only admits to being a former prosecutor in Mexico. Kate is highly aware of the peculiarity of the situation, but she becomes plagued by curiosity, refusing to quit until she learns the true purpose of her recruitment. When she rides into Juarez with Matt, Alejandro and a bevy of other well-armed officers pulled from various entities, they're able to capture Guillermo Diaz, Manuel's brother. On the way back, they're trapped in a traffic jam just inside the American border and nearly ambushed by multiple men looking to get Guillermo back. It is this moment that Kate sees the true colors of Matt and his unit. With little provocation, they dispatch of all of the sent killers, firing away into a traffic jam filled with civilians. Not one of the men is left alive, and Matt and co. flee leaving the listless drivers to watch the fresh corpses bake in the highway sun. This is illegal activity, Kate knows, but Matt explains that to truly fight the war on drugs you have to rattle cages, create disorder so that the truly dangerous men arise from the darkness. The Manuel Diaz's of the world are just the tip of the iceberg.

Kate is often warned by Reggie to quit, and break free from this unpredictable crew, but still Kate is compelled to stick around. She can smell wrongdoing and hopes to be the one to uncover it. More than anything, she is enthralled by the mercurial Alejandro, whose morals and motives are never truly clear. Her idealism is a weakness, her inquisitiveness is a burden. Villeneuve's film will remind some of Steven Soderbergh's 2000 watershed film, Traffic, even though the ambition of Sicario's plot is much more limited. Traffic was a gritty ensemble, where Sicario is a slick thriller. But both films had an understanding of the thin line of responsibility between America and Mexico in the war on drugs. In a climactic scene at the end of Traffic, Michael Douglas' embattled drug czar gives a resignation speech because the War on Drugs is a "war on family, and I don't know how you can go to war on your family". That character obviously had a very simplistic view of the drug world, but it was also honest. As long as dangerous drugs exist, there will be people to do them, and plenty of dangerous people willing to deal them. Sicario's view is a bit more bleak. It doesn't even give us the small sliver of triumph that Soderbergh gifted us. It doesn't see the War on Drugs as an actual conflict, but instead a perpetual cancer on humanity. Men are violent, and the War on Drugs gives men another reason to exact that violence.

Both films starred Benicio Del Toro. In Traffic, he was a benevolent Mexican narcotics officer whose work to stop one cartel only ended up directly empowering another. It's a brilliant performance and one that got him an Oscar. Here, Del Toro is much harder to place. We learn early that he's not above using illegalities to get the information he needs. How a prosecutor learned to become such a skilled practitioner of violence is not really explained. But there is horror in his past, and it becomes clear that the men responsible for the death of his wife and daughter are also the men he and Matt are working so hard to track down. Del Toro is very good here, his menace is both controlled and overwhelmingly intimidating. Just last year, Del Toro had two small roles, one in Guardians of the Galaxies and Inherent Vice. Both performances - neither was much longer than ten minutes - showed how Hollywood usually likes to use the Puerto Rican actor: as an oddity, an eccentric, hollow-eyed goofball. He can do this very well, and did in those two films, but it's important for Del Toro to get a Sicario-type role every now and then to remind people how truly talented he is. Del Toro's performance is helped by the secretive nature of Taylor Sheridan's script, which waits until the last possible moments to reveal Alejandro's true motivations. It's a powerhouse of a scene that only works because of the tremendous work Del Toro has delivered leading up to it.

The script from Sheridan is polished and obviously well-researched, but it becomes clear halfway through that both he and Villeneuve would have rather made a movie about Alejandro. The existence of the character of Kate Macer feels obligatory, like they were forced to employ starry-eyed agent to help the audience cope with the fact that the War on Drugs is not always fought on the most legitimate terms. Casting Emily Blunt in the role boggles the mind even further. Blunt's gift for recreating masculinity really shined in last year's Edge of Tomorrow, but it's just wasted here. Why cast such a talented, multi-faceted performer if all we really need her to do is be an audience surrogate? The concept of Kate being a woman in a man's world is never really addressed in any meaningful way, and it starts to beg the question of this character being a woman at all. If Villeneuve and Sheridan have some kind of milquetoast conviction of gender equality, wouldn't they craft a more interesting female character? And wouldn't they put at least one other woman in the entire movie? Blunt's presence in this film really confused me, considering she's given nothing to do but be scared, intimidated, beaten down. She is the peon being meticulously crushed under the boot of corruption, but can't even a single aspect of her character be captivating? Villeneuve has made some good films dissecting male barbarity, and this is another one. It's shallow attempt to even address femininity is haphazard and it leaves Blunt, who's supposed to be the film's star, out on an island.

Sicario is a solid film with only one real major flaw that I can really pinpoint. It's slow burn tenacity is a welcome change to stakes-raising one-upmanship of most thrillers these days. If I'm disappointed in the way that Emily Blunt is utilized (and she's hardly utilized at all), it's because I wish desperately for her to finally get a role deserving of her talent. Sicario is far from that. But as a detailed, drug war action film, it certainly raises questions that most Americans do their best to ignore. It doesn't try to bury American implication of the current disaster zone that is Juarez. In a political climate with various GOP candidates attempting to cut off Mexican access to America because they're "too dangerous", it's nice to see a film remind its audience that we're just as dangerous, and much more manipulative. This movie has a lot of interesting things to say, and working again with cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve continues to prove that he is a striking visual storyteller, capable of crafting a great thriller one of these days. I'm not sure that this is that great thriller. I don't want to say that I think Blunt's performance is bad here, far from it, but her character is all too indicative of what women are allowed to do in American films these days: be quiet, be brutalized, stand back and let the men steal the scene. There are ways to take a character like that and make it fascinating, but this film is too mesmerized by Del Toro and his character to truly give it a shot. I can empathize a bit, I was mesmerized too.

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