' ' Cinema Romantico: Sicario

Monday, October 05, 2015


As “Sicario” opens, a low rumble pervades the soundtrack, like thunder percolating in the distance. The picture comes up on the Arizonan desert as members of a SWAT Team dart in from screen’s right, a nondescript house their target. That low rumble grows, threatening, menacing and then... It explodes. An ARV smashes through the house’s wall. Shooting erupts. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), commander of a high-tech top-notch kidnap unit responding to a call, kills someone. But what they find isn’t what they expected. Dead bodies, rows of them, victims of a drug cartel’s vengeance, rot inside the home’s drywall. These thick-skinned agents bend over and vomit. And it gets worse when someone opens a trap door, detonating a bomb, taking a few of the good guys with it. Lucky to survive, Kate sits in the post-blast dust, dazed, and sees a severed arm on the ground. This is American soil but it’s like the opening of “Saving Private Ryan.” The War on Drugs is a nifty label; you can use it in stump speeches; you can put it on bumper stickers; you can say we’re “winning” it or “losing” it or anything in-between. But it’s all distant ambient noise compared to the high-watt screams of this sequence. This, “Sicario” is saying with a punch to the goddam gut, is your War on Drugs.

Working in conjunction with Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, one that favors keen subtext over explicit speechifying, Denis Villeneuve’s immaculate two hour film feels extraordinarily lean, packaged with nary a moment of dead air. His action set pieces are unfathomably intense, yet no less exhilarating for the way in which he genuinely, inexorably and breathlessly builds tension; he builds and builds and then…releases, quickly and viciously, maximizing the impact before barreling on. And if these and other events are brutal, he never glorifies the violence, giving us just enough sense of the carnage to grasp the enormous real world stakes and then cutting away. And “Sicario’s” photography, courtesy of the impeccable Roger Deakins, repeatedly ruminates in breathless images of the southwestern landscape, such as the red sun cutting through the low hanging clouds like arrows of flaming fire even as machine gun fire pops in the distance, nature’s beauty juxtaposed against the film’s ferocious anger.

Kate is our entry point this story of extravagant governmental murk and mire, enlisted to join a nebulous outfit captained by a guy whose position is vague but clearly high up, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, effortlessly rendering drug enforcement as dinner theater), introduced wearing flip-flops to a top level meeting, swift characterization that establishes his easygoing familiarity with such weighty derring-do that stands in stark contrast to Kate’s naivety. Played by Blunt with taciturn intensity, Kate is something of a cipher, but that’s deliberate rather than a writing failure. Matt ensures she has no family ties because he wants her to be a social nonentity. The film’s only real pause in momentum is a seeming cut-from-cardboard sequence of Kate going out for drinks that devolves into something horrifying. The horror, however, while conventional on the surface, expresses an existence where every personal relationship retains the possibility of being compromised. To lead her life, you inevitably see the world upside down, evoked in an indelible shot reflected in a coffee table of Kate at a delicate instant.

Physically, Blunt’s performance is rock steady. Her eyes, on the other hand, searching, skeptical, fearful, tell a dissimilar story, one in which confusion merely balloons by the moment; she’s down the rabbit hole. Normally a movie so devoted to withholding pertinent information from its protagonist would be guilty of a cheap ploy to prolong suspense; in “Sicario” it feels spot-on. Cryptic is the language of bureaucracy in this brave new world. Matt speaks in vacuous riddles. You keep waiting for Kate to transform into a fed-up ass-kicker taking names, the requisite unstoppable anti-drug action movie force. That doesn’t happen. The only real knowledge she gleans is the war’s continually moving boundaries. Anything goes.

Those moving goalposts pertain just as much to the movie’s narrative. If Matt seems the big cheese, that is proven partially illusory the more Kate gets to know his ostensible right-hand man, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). His intent, his attitude, even his nationality, shift scene to scene, and that elusiveness is personified most in his relationship with Kate, one that persistently re-sets. If you think they’re friends, they’re probably enemies, and vice-versa. Fifteen years ago Del Toro won an Oscar for “Traffic” playing a Mexican cop, Javier, caught up in the War on Drugs on the other side of the border. Alejandro may as well be Javier with a lot more mileage on him. If Javier was hopeful, Alejandro, played by Del Toro with a fiercely inscrutable poker face, is dark and doubtful, and the lines in his face unconsciously evoke the toil this border battle takes.

The “Traffic” comparison is imperative. Steven Soderbergh’s fine film encompassed all aspects of this unwinnable war, from corrupt Mexican cops to DEA agents stuck between a rock and a hard place to the drug war coming home to affluent America. “Sicario” deliberately takes a narrower approach, presenting the front lines rather than the fallout, money poured into the logistics and gear to maintain a fight where the finish line is an omnipresent mirage. One scene finds Kate descending into a drug tunnel beneath the border where yet another harsh revelation awaits. Emblemizing the entire film, she is made to burrow deeper and deeper, hoping to reach the bottom of this crusade, only to find the bottom repeatedly giving way to more layers, more and more, on and on into forever, etc. It's a cynical viewpoint, yes, but from that cynicism emerges a paradoxical clarity, the only kind that can exist in a conflict of such awe-inspiring ethical elasticity. The further she plunges into darkness, the closer she gets to seeing the light.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic review! I can't wait to see this one for myself.