Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Land of Wolves: Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario

Emily Blunt in Sicario, directed by  Denis Villeneuve.

Sicario (which, as we learn in the first frames, is the Spanish word for “hitman”) opens with an FBI raid on a suburban house in Arizona. It’s led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who discovers, thanks to a hole punched through drywall by a shotgun blast that was meant for her head, that the home was not just a hub for Mexican drug cartel activity, but also a repository of their victims. She is thrown into a joint-agency operation targeting the head of the cartel, organized by CIA “consultant” Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his mysterious associate, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). She’s kept in the dark; Matt tells her they’re flying to El Paso, but the plane takes them across the border to Juárez – as gritty, dark, and dangerous a slum as has ever been captured on film. When she turns to Alejandro for answers, his reply is, “You’re asking me how a watch is made. For now, just keep your eye on the time.”

The frustration Kate feels at being kept out of the loop is merely an extension of the drug war she’s fighting. The absurdity and nihilism of their battle against the cartel system is highlighted again and again, whether it’s the insanity of the very notion of meeting violence with more violence, or simply the casual nonchalance of government officials (like Matt, who pads around in flip-flops looking like he just rolled out of bed). It’s a world of madness and incongruity, where a merciless drug lord can eat a civil supper with his family after a day full of butchery, sometimes aimed at families just like his. Kate is often as horrified by her government’s willingness to throw due process out the window as she is by the brutality she witnesses in Juárez, and her strength is in her ability to stand up and scream in the eye of this moral hurricane.

Sicario feels a like a slight departure from the previous films of Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve: it’s less of a personally-driven story than Prisoners (2013) and far less abstract than Enemy (2013), but, in its own way, just as disturbing. It’s direct, simple, and unbelievably tense, capitalizing on the strength of its excellent cast and the visual power of its setting to create scenes of such heightened intensity that you feel both mentally and physically exhausted afterward. As with his previous films, Villeneuve establishes himself here as a master of tone and pacing, adding a sense of dark purpose to the ordinary and the mundane through sound and cinematography. Whether it’s a character sleeping in late while his son brings him breakfast, or that same character standing between two cars at the side of the road, Sicario’s gorgeous and clever staging uses every frame as an opportunity to create unease. The exceptional cinematography, with liberal use of aerial establishing shots to balance out the cramped and dark interiors, made it no surprise to see in the credits that Roger Deakins was behind the lens. His ability to tell a rich story through visuals alone is a great compliment to Villeneuve's intense directing style, and together they make Sicario something as beautiful as it is foreboding.

Benicio Del Toro in Sicario.

Emily Blunt is wonderfully sympathetic as Kate, by far my favourite of her roles to date. For my money, if you want a military thriller exploring the murky morality of US counterterrorism that stars a talented actress in a demanding role, Sicario is a much better choice than the obvious alternative, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012). In that movie, Jessica Chastain is icy and distant, taking her character's retreat into her job so far that she retreats from the audience, too, forgetting to include us in her conflict. In Sicario, Blunt brings you in, entreating you to share in her terror and guilt, and effectively translating the rage of Kate's impotence. She's utterly magnetic. But that’s simply an evaluation of the films based on their leads; I also think that Sicario has the edge in visuals, direction, music, and its refreshing lack of a political agenda, which was inevitable in Zero’s depiction of a real-life event (and a very emotionally-charged moment in American history at that) but which is totally unnecessary here. Cartel violence and drug trafficking are modern-day issues that another filmmaker might have felt obliged to treat politically, but Villeneuve has no interest in making such a statement. To him, the film itself is king, and any adjacent political conclusions should be an organic byproduct of the telling of the story, and not baked-in deliberately from the get-go. Thank god for that, because it makes for a way more immersive film.

If Sicario is political, it’s in the realm of gender politics. Villeneuve doesn’t comment, he deconstructs: through the film’s distinctly gendered subtext, particularly the trope of the "tough female protagonist", he ensures that Kate's agency and idealism are slowly but surely marginalized. She's told to keep quiet, to not ask questions, to keep her safety on and her barrel pointed down. In a moment that’s focused on her character as a woman, she’s told she looks like shit. She’s pushed to the sidelines for the entire film in a deliberate effort to frustrate those who want to see a "strong woman" kicking ass. Villeneuve doesn't want your attention focused on the stereotypes in play; he wants Sicario's sense of despair and futility to remain constant, which in turn is a far more useful feminist statement. Power and the lack thereof is the name of the game in gender inequality, and by giving Blunt a gun and a badge and a badass introduction and then denying her the chance to use them effectively, he creates a potent metaphor for this issue, as well as a deeply compelling character. Watching Kate persevere and maintain her white-knuckle grip on her idealism despite these inequities and small cruelties was so much more rewarding to me as a viewer than countless “feminist” depictions of women in cinema.

You can take your pick of reasons to see Sicario: it’s the latest – and, I believe, greatest – effort from an incredibly talented filmmaker in his prime, supported by cinematography from a literal living legend. It features career-best performances from Del Toro and Blunt, working with a script by Taylor Sheridan that is as fiercely intelligent as it is simple and bleak. It creates a lingering sense of tension that is likely to leave your muscles knotted for hours after the credits roll. It’s, quite simply, thriller cinema in its purest modern form.

 – Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

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