Let us bring up again that old Eliot chestnut, "the world won't end with a bang, but with a whimper", to remind us that Sicario begins with a bang (or rather, several), as a FBI SWAT team enters an Arizona charnel house of horrors, only to end, two hours later (and this is no spoiler) with a distraught, whimpering FBI agent asking what did she just live through. We can ask the same question ourselves: what were we just hit with?
Sicario systematically puts up a genre scaffold, a framework that lures the viewer in, and just as systematically tears it down with each new development until its nominal heroine, a door-busting, no-nonsense FBI agent named Kate Macer and playes vibrantly by Emily Blunt, is left hanging from what's left by the skin of a finger nail. (It's a metaphor. There are no cliffhangers like that in the film.) The warning this is going to happen is, actually, perfectly enunciated by Benicio del Toro about a third of the way into the film: "Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will question everything you do. But, in the end, you will understand." And understand we do, in Denis Villeneuve's brilliantly dark and almost hopeless drug-war thriller, synthesizing a resolutely contemporary take on one of American cinema's most hardened tropes, the twisty thriller following a hero in search of justice.
Taylor Sheridan's script is incredibly ambitious in its attempt to dramatize the many tentacles of contemporary drug trafficking, using as his way in Ms. Blunt's character, an agent who has been on the frontline of chasing drug and people traffickers assigned to an undercover operation to neutralize a Mexican kingpin where the book everything is supposed to be done by has just gone out the window. It falters uneasily when it tries to give a voice to the Mexicans who suffer the most from the drug war - a subplot about a Mexican cop on the take is so bare-bones it's almost cringeworthy, and nearly all of the characters on the Latino side of the border are purely functional archetypes not given much thought. But Mr. Sheridan packs a mean punch when it comes to fingering the political aspects the thing takes on the American side, designing a quicksand swampland of loose morals and means-justifying-the-end ironically set in the desert lands of Arizona, Texas and Mexico.
Roger Deakins' roving camera, a surveillance object if there ever was one, moves implacably, almost inexorably above and on the surface of this desert, where derelict cars do double duty as entrances to a hellish underworld, coyote holes into which Kate is about to fall through like Alice on the other side of the looking-glass. Down is now up, left is now right, "truth, justice and the American way" quietly devolving into an almost lawless New Wild West, as seen through the get-the-job-done credo of Kathryn Bigelow's Iraq war films and the cool, professional sheen of Michael Mann's contemporary noirs.
Mr. Villeneuve may clearly be trespassing onto Steven Soderbergh territory here; Sicario could be a more focussed Traffic minus the mosaic plotting, but in fact there's more in common with the Canadian helmer's earlier Prisoners in the earnestness with which it approaches its tale (though, for my money, Sicario is the better film). I can't help but think of Mr. Villeneuve as an equivalent to Christopher Nolan: in an American film landscape where most everyone seems concerned with making entertainment, both directors are aiming for a scope and approach that is serious, certainly thoughtful, occasionally stern in its moralist approach, but trying to approach serious issues within an arena of genre filmmaking while refusing simple, black and white dichotomies. Sicario is notable for its refusal to sugarcoat the pill - there's a starkness, a darkness to the film, borne out of the disenchantment in its tale, of its realization there can be no escape from this vicious circle.
Unlike the liberal thrillers of the 1970s (another reference all too present), where things were done with a view to making sure things got better, Sicario offers no easy fixes, no comforting solutions; this isn't going away and all we can do is contain it. The beating tempo editor Joe Walker creates highlights the fact that every new piece of the puzzle isn't going to fit neatly, everything is a challenge that changes the image you're trying to build. Halfway through the film's taut two-hour running time, you've lost all landmarks and are merely being buffeted back and forth by the twisting and turning plot, left as much in the dark as its heroine is, even though the director can't occasionally help tease the viewer with information hidden from her. After all, everything happens above her paygrade.
Not everything works in Sicario, for sure; it certainly may not be the most original or illuminating take on its hot-button subject. But it's a smart, thoughtful, thought-provoking one, and above all a formally masterful feat of control and command from the director and his crew, turning the landscapes of Arizona and Mexico into a sort of parched, desolate, apocalyptic territory where nothing can survive but bloody violence. A place where the world does not end with a bang as much as it dries out with a whimper, all love and emotion wizened and worn out by weather until nothing is left but the desert. And it's a desert.
US, 2015, 121 minutes
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya. Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Taylor Sheridan; cinematography by Roger Deakins (widescreen); music by Jóhann Jóhannssón; production designer Patrice Vermette; costume designer Renée April; editor Joe Walker; produced by Basil Iwanyk, Edward R. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill and Thad Luckinbill, for Lionsgate, Black Label Media and Thunder Road Pictures.
Screened October 8th 2015, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, Lisbon, distributor press screening.