Sicario (2015)

*. It’s not that surprising that Anthony Lane, reviewing Sicario in the New Yorker, saw in it a kind of Western. The cartel/border action flick has established itself now as a Western sub-genre, at least in the critical literature. That said, I see these movies as more akin to the gangster flicks of the 1930s, albeit having replaced the dirty streets of Prohibition-era New York and Chicago for the desert. Yes, the look is very Western (or neo-Western), but the cartels always make me think of the mob in Little Caesar and G-Men, and when Alejandro invades the drug lord’s hacienda in Sicario it’s hard not to think of the end of De Palma’s Scarface.
*. I like Sicario, and I want to say that right off the top because I do not like it as much as I think most people did. It’s a decent movie, but it’s a long way from a great one.
*. Take the photography. It’s by living legend Roger Deakins, and it looks very nice. If you were thinking while you were watching Sicario that it seems a lot like No Country for Old Men that probably has as much to do with the fact that Deakins shot both movies as it does to their both being about tales of border violence. But does Sicario look any better or any different than No Country for Old Men?

*. The shot that gets the most praise is of the team of warriors walking off into the desert, silhouetted against a desert sunset. It looks very nice. I don’t object to it, but aren’t all desert sunsets beautiful? When people talk about the beauty of a film’s photography I like to think it’s because the cinematographer has shot material that isn’t conventionally beautiful, or which may even be ugly, and made it look beautiful, or at least interesting. Like the long shot of a ditch full of garbage in Stalker, to take one example. And aside from the sunset here, how did this movie look any different than a random episode of Breaking Bad (which, admittedly, is a very good looking TV show)?

*. Sticking with the look of the film for just a second, what is with all the overhead shots? I’ve heard it said that there was a desire to blur the border between the U.S. and Mexico by showing it from above, where it effectively disappears, but I think in these exterior shots what director Denis Villeneuve really wants to do is blur the line between the camera as the omniscient eye of God and the view from surveillance drones or spy satellites. This gives the film the same kind of detached, almost clinical feel as the aerial shots in Enemy, where we feel like the characters are rats in a maze.
*. As an aside, another reason for the aerial shots, at least of Juarez, was that shooting in the city was considered to be too dangerous.

*. That said, Villeneuve’s thing for overhead shots goes beyond these homages to Google Earth. He also goes back to it in a number of interiors. Sometimes it seems to allude again to security cam footage, but elsewhere it just seems arty, or meant to take us into a kind of visual abstraction, as when when Macer washes her hands in the sink, or we get the cutaway in the torture scene to a shot of the drain and the jug of water. Normally such flourishes strike me as artificial and posturing, but they work with the overall feel of Sicario, which remains very cool and distant, even when it takes us indoors and up close and personal.
*. Another aspect of Sicario that gets a lot of praise is the handling of several set-piece scenes. The one that stands out the most (and which was the most difficult to film) is the traffic-jam shootout. Again, I thought this was a decent sequence, but not particularly memorable. Critics raved about how “tense” it was, but it didn’t seem that way to me. There are no surprises and it just plays out in a perfunctory manner. That may have been the point — that the police team is so highly trained and professional that the bad guys don’t even get a shot off — but it seemed kind of anti-climactic to me.
*. The same could be said of the tunnel sequence. Again, nothing much happens very quickly. I didn’t feel any suspense or tension, and at the end of it I didn’t feel as though anything was at stake. In fact, I was a little unclear what the point of the raid was, aside from just stirring things up.
*. Both scenes share that sense of quiet, underplayed professionalism, but I didn’t find them particularly compelling. Ditto for the bus station scene, where (again) nothing much happens but we get a quiet build-up to a payoff that never arrives. At least we were spared the torture though.
*. I called these scenes “quiet” but that only refers to the dialogue. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score isn’t underselling anything.

*. I like it when Macer (Emily Blunt) asks Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) what’s going on and he replies “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now we’ll just keep an eye on the time.” That’s a good line and I’m quoting it because it’s the only good line in the movie. This is a movie where nothing interesting or even of any import is said.
*. In other words, I didn’t care for the script. The dialogue is part of it, but the story is weak too. The plot is total nonsense. Emily Blunt’s Macer is a proxy for the audience, not knowing what’s going on. We’re with her. But then we find out what’s going on and it’s just a throwaway, and an unconvincing one at that. These guys are really worried about legality? They couldn’t find a more pliable FBI agent to adopt? Someone they could be sure of? And what is poor Reggie getting dragged along for?
*. Come to think of it, what even happens to Reggie? At one point I thought the team had just killed him after they came out of the tunnel. I don’t think that’s what happened, but we don’t see him again. So, maybe.
*. Alejandro’s one-man assault on the drug lord’s home struck me as a really routine action-movie fantasy, with the hero taking vengeance for the murder of his family. I didn’t buy it for a minute and thought it seemed out of place.
*. Del Toro’s Alejandro is only another version of Javier Bardem’s Chigurh: an implacable and laconic force of fate embodying a cynical philosophy that has the world divided into predator and prey in a land of wolves. Apparently there were immediate plans for a sequel to Sicario based on his character. Because why not? We like superhero franchises.

*. The cast got a lot of praise. I don’t think they had to work very hard. Brolin and Del Toro could play these characters in their sleep, and Del Toro looks like he may have been trying to do just that. Emily Blunt has absolutely nothing to work with so just tries to get through things as blankly as possible. This gave me a new appreciation for what Villeneuve saw in Jake Gyllenhaal. He can do blank better than almost anyone and was Villeneuve’s true huckleberry.
*. I’ve heard that the script described Juarez as “a living hell.” The mayor of Juarez urged a boycott of the film because it presented a bad image of the city. But he also said that it was accurate enough up until about 2010, when things started getting better. That didn’t strike me as boosting the hometown very much.
*. At the end of the day I thought this was just a slick action flick with a generically vague script. It looks nice and scores some style points for not being so damn loud and frantically edited. Give Villeneuve and Deakins credit for that. But I don’t think it makes any profound political or moral point and I don’t think it’s as effective or original a piece of filmmaking as it was hailed as being on its release. Still, if they were to set up an Alejandro vs. Chigurh death-match in the sequel I’d probably watch.

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