In a world where even the best and most creative directors find themselves suddenly assigned to do yet another faceless super hero film on which, fairly or not, the rest of their brief career rests, Denis Villeneuve is an outlier. His movies have gained renown for his deliberate pacing, emphasis on story telling and frequent partnership with cinematographer Roger Deakins, who seems to share a similar vision to Villeneuve. His concentration on something other than pretty lights and explosions makes him somewhat of an outlier in mainstream directors.
Still he has gained popularity, both among critics and audiences, even if his movies have never been runaway box office hits. It's possible that may end with his version of Dune if he pulls off the feat of making Frank Herbert's sprawling science fiction novel make sense on the big screen, but so far Villeneuve has been one of those rare directors that benefit from reputation rather than financial returns. That didn't seem to be a big deal with such movies as Sicario and The Arrival, but definitely was with Blade Runner 2049. Despite being faithful to the cinematic universe of its predecessor, both visually and story wise, it still did not put him over the top like it should have.
While he has been known more recently for his science fiction films he largely came up doing the sort of artsy suspense movies that his style hints at. He eventually moved from doing movies in his native Quebec to working in the United States, and the movie that got him the most attention prior to The Arrival was Sicario. I largely ignored it at first because most films about the drug trade and border problems seem to follow one or two lines of thinking - either painting everyone in Mexico as violent and corrupt, or everyone on this side of the border as racist and corrupt, and typically just using either method as an excuse to glamorize the terroristic methods of the real cartels. It works in a hyperviolent alternate reality like the television show Mayans M.C., and sometimes the human toll is explored (Tigers Are Not Afraid is a great example), but too often the finer points are ignored for the more visceral.
Sicario, on the other hand, while having some of the usual aspects of movies about the drug war, cartels and the like, is not so much concerned with the actual trade itself nor the efforts to bring down the violent oligarchs that seem the sole beneficiaries of the trade. Instead it is concerned with a loss of innocence when one has live with their ideals stripped away and come to terms that there is not really anything that can be done to change things, especially when those that have the power to make a change simply refuse to do so.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent in the Phoenix, Arizona office who specializes in kidnappings. When responding to a report of a number of hostages being kept in a house in nearby Chandler they discover a grisly scene highlighted by a booby trap set by Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Seracino), the public face of a drug cartel in Juarez, Sonora. Macer is asked to accompany an agent named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to El Paso and, on the way, are joined by a mysterious man named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro).
When they get to El Paso it becomes more and more apparent that Graver and Alejandro are up to much more than they are revealing, as Kate begins to get uneasy about the fact that she is just along for the ride rather than being put in a learning situation that may lead to a promotion as she originally thought. Her fellow agent Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) begins to think the same as the methods Matt and Alejandro employ become increasingly dangerous and illegal.
The word sicario is Latin derived and means "hitman," and instead of going for the obvious it doesn't become clear who the hitman is until toward the end of the movie. In fact, Sicario spends a lot of its time not explaining anything, which helps ratchet up the tension. The best example is the crossing of the border back into the United States after the extradition of Manuel's brother Guillermo (Edgar Arreola) as it becomes clear that anyone - including the Sonoran police - could be under the employ of the cartel.
Parallel to Kate's awakening is a Sonoran police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández) who lives with his wife and child in Nogales. He is quite aware that, while nominally a police officer, he is a tool of the cartel, but does what he is told dutifully with the thought that it means he is keeping himself and his family safe. Kate, meanwhile, thinks that she is keeping her whole country safe by doing the job she does, but ultimately finds out that she is being used as much as a tool as Silvio. Though the two never meet they are both not in control of anything that is truly happening in their lives or their world despite what they personally think.
Unfortunately, though brilliantly filmed by Deakins - often with available light - and paced, Sicario has some major problems. Much as my complaint that throwing a yellow filter on the camera doesn't suddenly make a city Tijuana any more than a blue one makes it Seattle, one can't just have one desert city fill in for all of them. The movie has a great opening with the discovery inside the house, but by the time that happened I was still not done yelling that there was no way that it was Chandler. It looked a little like Queen Creek, but still not a saguaro in sight. Neither was Tucson looking a bit like Tucson which, although not the size of Phoenix and attempting to maintain a mixture of western and Spanish feel to its architecture due to the city's history, was portrayed as a backwater hick town. Same with Phoenix, which is now the fifth largest city in the United States, being portrayed as a place full of dusty honky-tonk bars; an FBI agent stationed in downtown Phoenix would have to drive 30 to 40 miles to get to a bar as portrayed in the movie. The reason is most of it was filmed in Albuquerque. I know that Albuquerque has really been encouraging companies to film there, but California does a better job of sitting in for Arizona than New Mexico.
The other problem was that there were just so many situations that helped forward the plot even though someone with a basic knowledge of the law knows is wrong. At one point a bagman for Diaz is captured making a withdrawal at a bank where they have repeatedly done deposits under 10 thousand dollars to avoid getting reported. Problem is, doing something like that is one of the quickest ways to end a criminal career. It's an immediate red flag, practically screaming to the bank, and every agency monitoring such transactions, that one is up to something. Not getting caught doing that is actually one of the reasons Walter White employs Saul Goodman in another Albuquerque-based production about the drug trade. It is amazing that a movie that a movie that put so much effort into showing the emotional toll events can take, as well as attempting to make the audience feel and sympathize with that toll, would be so sloppy with locations and simple, basic facts.
The majority of Sicario works, largely due to the performances of Brolin and del Toro and, as things go on and she goes from being a Boy Scout to a beaten pet, so does Blunt. I don't think she gets enough credit for her performance as she is the one we are supposed to sympathize with, since she is the one with ideals and a desire to bring Diaz down using real police work rather than methods that seem more at home on the battlefield than in police work. The slow burn reveal of who Alejandro truly is also adds to the tension, as del Toro remains silent and withdrawn for a good portion of the film, despite the fact that Alejandro is obviously a man that even the Diazes know and fear. I just wish there were not those little moments that took me out of the movie.
Time: 121 minutes
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Daniel Kaluuyah
Director: Denis Villeneuve