Sicario Dir. Denis Villeneuve

[Lionsgate/Black Label Media; 2015]

Styles: drama, psychological thriller, political thriller
Others: The Hurt Locker, Heat, The Conversation, The Parallax View

Sicario is a murkily loaded thriller, not unlike Zero Dark Thirty, but it isn’t applying its moral ambiguity as an aesthetic. The world that FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) finds herself in is one of perpetual disgust and exhaustion. The fear of death is classically palpable, but the executions in this film are so surgically perfunctory and constant that it can almost feel like a breezy respite from futility. Macer’s fear and practiced sense of right and wrong is rendered positively quaint next to the shockingly cynical, vicious soldiers of dubious fortune she finds herself among. She faces her fear (beyond that old trope of returning to smoking) stridently, meeting it with equal parts righteous indignation and the hard charging decisiveness that’s made her reputation. Her pained expressions speak volumes, while her dialogue is more in keeping with someone who’s been around enough taciturn men with guns to know how feeble words can be. A lot of hay has been made of the whole “war is hell” sentiment. You can embrace the paradoxically self-righteous dichotomy of people risking their lives while sacrificing their humanity, or you can turn a blind eye and hope it doesn’t wash up on your doorstep. Neither Macer nor Juarez police officer and husband/father Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández, as the protagonist of the film’s quietly portentous b-story) have much choice. They have to do both. They can’t do either. Stagnation and suspense have rarely been so imperceptibly woven together.

Dust is floating around us at all times. We live amidst it and don’t see it. It takes a dark room and a lone shaft of light for it to appear. When you notice how much is flying around you breathe differently. A little slower, through the nose, sparingly. In Sicario, this garden variety phenomenon becomes a powerful motif for living amidst constant upheaval — the trials of finding footing and purpose while life is living you. Beyond idealistic, as some reviewers have described her, Macer is a devout soldier with unshakable faith in protocol. Proper procedure is her talisman against the carnage. Idealism doesn’t enter into it. She knows that the kidnappings (her specialty) and murders that go on in the name of profit are larger than what she can get her team around. She knows she needs to puke and take a hard look in the mirror and get over it. What seems plain is that she is a character whose self-preservation and protocol-hewn values are suddenly at odds with each other. Government spook Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) shows up to Macer’s offices in flip flops and a matching cavalier attitude. She (and the audience) eye those flip flops warily. She is chosen for a high level mission and paid lip service about getting payback for losses on a potentially related bust (which opens the film, establishing Macer’s bravery and tactical acumen). In the parlance of the men in this film (and there are a lot of ‘em, almost all repugnant), she’s “kicked down some doors”, so she’s a prime candidate for this unnamed mission. Her partner (Daniel Kaluuya, playing maybe the only decent guy here) is concerned for her, and she won’t go without him. But he is kept even more out of the loop than she is.

When the compunctionless Alejandro (Del Toro, better than he’s been in years) comes on the scene, it seems Macer clocks him right away as someone with all kinds of ugliness in his wake. The man is so ghoulishly deliberate and remote as to make Graver seem like an open book. We discover that he has very specific (again, classical) reasons for being the brute that he is. But unlike Javier Rodriguez in Traffic, there is no redemption. He looks on Macer as a daughter, occasionally intervening on her behalf, but she is his opposite. He is hell’s foot soldier. The only thing that drives him is the power to torture and to kill. I have to give Villeneuve, Del Toro, and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan credit for not making this character too anti-heroic. He is an ostensibly disposable cog, like Blunt’s would-be hero. The bigger picture is humanity’s growing nihilism, and the ways in which the virtuous can be used to further it. As we should all know by now, “Fuck The Police” isn’t about empowering criminals, but about feeling disempowered and hopelessly profiled by officials with “To Serve and Protect” on their vehicles. Because of rigid esprit de corps, each officer is every officer. So it goes with the drug war. Kate Macer’s sin is being a good soldier while her superiors exploit that loyalty to play an illegal game of whack-a-mole in Juarez. Life is cheap down there and we somehow have the resources and nihilism posing as grave conviction to play it their way.

There is a sort of wonderment at watching a fleet of armored vehicles (both Graver’s cowboys and area Federales) proceed through an urban dystopia with urgency and purpose, but that wonderment gradually turns to disgust. When that ubiquitous “you gotta admire it” remark is made by one of Graver’s men about the cartel’s method of displaying the dismembered bodies of uncooperative citizens under a highway bridge, one senses an acute, systemic moral decay in place. Later when one of Graver’s guys is subduing Reggie (Kaluuya) with his rifle, he uses rape language (relax, lie down, let it happen). In an Expendables movie this line would be played for a cheap laugh. Here it reflects the smug culture of being on the administrative end of something whose only purpose is negation. Traditional, Cannon-style action films cloud our reason and feed our latent desire to wipe the slate and obliterate evil with itself. Modern, prestige action films (Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, Saving Private Ryan) do the same thing, but take into account PTSD and other less hawkish preoccupations for counterbalance. The artist’s action film, which is what we have here, doesn’t play around. It unassumingly displays both the monstrosity of the cartel and the clandestine administrative moral relativism of our law enforcement. And the “lone wolf,” as it turns out, is not a wolf at all. Kate Macer is not a one-woman army of righteousness. She is Joseph K, endlessly waiting and beating her against a wall. Losing her grip the more she grasps.

As such, every gorgeous set piece here (bolstered by the ever-breath taking cinematography of Roger Deakins) leaves the viewer with a cautious, dour temperament. Despite the temptation to call them slight, the recurring scenes of a Juarez policeman’s family in quiet, intimate repose are curious in their minimalism. It’s that same waiting. Being a police officer in Juarez means working with the Cartels, and with Graver and his gang creating a power vacuum, that work is bound to put him in a compromised position. The grim likely future of Silvio’s family is written on his wife’s face. Her boy’s innocence is vulnerable in ways most people in high positions of our government cannot and will not fathom. The film doesn’t get close to this family because they are as inconsequential to the guns and men that live behind them as our compassion as viewers is fleeting. This is a film that seizes upon the nerve-shredding distortion that occurs when we try to see a drug war scenario that contains a satisfying beginning, middle and end. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s droning, dread-inducing score is familiar; what’s not (especially in a major motion picture) is the emptiness you feel when that dread pays off. You close your eyes. You breathe slow. You distract yourself with small matters. Meanwhile, chaos reigns. Thrill-seekers get what they want and then some.

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