Denis Villeneuve (director) gives us a master class in tension-driven action scenes with the opening of his new war on drugs thriller, Sicario. In a sequence that channels Kathryn Bigelow’s exceptional Zero Dark Thirty, Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) leads her team in a kidnap recovery raid on a suburban Arizona house.
After uncovering some horrifying secrets about the residence, Macy is given the opportunity to hunt down the men responsible by joining an elite cross-departmental task force, led by Josh Brolin’s Matt.
This woman-in-a-man’s-world narrative starts promisingly as Macy’s by-the-books approach begins to clash with the judge, jury and executioner tactics of Matt and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). But, it’s not long before Villeneuve and his first-time writer, Taylor Sheridan, begin to turn away from the progressive character work and resort back to age-old gender roles.
Macy initially comes across as a strong willed, and successful, woman, who’s battled the odds to get where she is. However, the character regresses, as the complexities hinted at early on are seemingly revealed to be a fluke and her dominance bends, and ultimately breaks.
And, as Blunt is left with little to do, it’s Alejandro who takes the lead with a character arc straight out of any old crime thriller. From this moment onwards, almost all of Sicario’s uniqueness falls prey to generic convention. And, while it’s well-done generic convention, the film was on track to be so much more than that.
It does have the benefit of a composer, in Jóhann Jóhannsson, and a cinematographer, in Roger Deakins, playing at the top of their game, however. Deakins visuals are strikingly composed and he really draws the muscularity out of the southern states landscapes. His work shooting the border is especially impressive and, aided by Jóhannsson’s thumping score, the US-Mexico divide has rarely felt as imposing.
It’s an excellent pairing of sound and visuals, as important to the film as, dare I say it, Ennio Morricone and Tonino Delli Colli’s work on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns. They may not compare stylistically, but there are certainly formal similarities. In fact, the film, as a whole, draws a great deal from the Western genre, with the moral ambiguity, the gunslinger figures and the Mexico-as-hell conventions all playing a part.
But, with regards to the treatment of Mexico, there’s just as much to learn from Middle East-set war movies. The streets of Juarez feel no different to the streets of Kabul or Baghdad. They’re alien, they’re wild, they labyrinthine . . . and little else. Villeneuve simply treats Mexico as a location and a thematic basis for the cartel thrills.
As for the ‘social commentary’, it’s primarily generic in its roots. And, when Robert Rodriguez’s Machete outdoes your film for scathing social commentary, you know something’s off.
Sicario boasts a playful performance from Josh Brolin, a terrific soundscape and Roger Deakins firing on all cylinders, but it could have been so much more than the competent genre picture we’re given. The powerhouse opening becomes an increasingly distant memory as Blunt gets slowly sidelined by her male co-stars.