What is the cinematic language for discomfort? The line between representing uncomfortable things on screen while not being an uncomfortable, and thereby unenjoyable film, is one that’s often difficult to toe. Even ignoring the sometimes futile question of what makes a film ‘enjoyable’, domestic tensions – especially in the light of so many gripping war films – are often difficult to invoke without becoming unrealistically horrific or too predictably thriller-ish. This is not to say that Denis Villeneuve’s latest, Sicario, never thrills or even horrifies. However, in typical Villeneuve fashion it is through the unfolding, the critical unfolding, of simple tensions that this tale of an ostensibly straightforward investigation into a drug cartel begins to congeal. It is in these moments that the film disturbs, unsettles and ultimately overwhelms.
The story is simple. An FBI swat team raid the premises of suspected kidnappers headed by staunch Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). A bomb goes off but not before they uncover more than just kidnapped victims, but endless bodies of corpses, many of them women, stuffed into walls. It’s the instigator needed to convince idealistic Kate to “volunteer” to join a team of Delta Force operators heading to Mexico to extradite one of Diaz’s top men. She must find the men responsible for this. Except, it’s unclear how this extradition is expected to work, or even what Kate’s role in the team is beyond being the single woman in a party of officious men led by the opprobrious Matt Gaver (Josh Brolin). On her side, she has her swat partner Reggie (an excellent, if underused, Daniel Kaluuya). Less certain is whether tight-lipped curio Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) is on her side, or anyone’s for that matter.
As Kate makes her way into the underbelly of the drug world it comes as no surprise that she is in way over her head, watching in confusion and mounting horror at the way things unfold with the “law enforcers” flouting the law in their own ways. For the first two-thirds of the film this straightforward descent into the way to catch a criminal is interspersed with occasional but essential shots of a police officer in Mexico and his pleasant if banal life, comfortably arguing with his son, waking up for breakfast. This is Silvio and he becomes a deft hook in the film’s machinations. If you guess where Silvio is connected with the story, you might be right but it doesn’t quite prepare for how this familiar device is used.
A film like Sicario inevitably gets caught up in the difficulty of questioning whether representation of a particular state of affairs becomes complicity in the endorsement of that state of affairs. Sicario’s othering of the non-American world is an essential aspect of its fabric and its conflation of Latin America with drugs is not accidental but a part of its value, of which there are many. The film confronts explicitly, and implicitly, the way conversation on things like nationalism, race, police brutality intersect and unfold. Even more, Sicario is careful to never endorse the de facto American state of affairs. In one of the many striking shots, Kate – disgusted with her part in a “hit” – stands just off-centre with the image of her foregrounded by the waving American flag. It’s unsubtle stuff, but not less effective for that.
Sicario needs to be deliberate to work. Roger Deakins’ photography is effective and overwhelming because he knows this is a movie that needs a good offense, not a good defense. It’s typically consummate work from him aided by Joe Walker’s excellent editing. With its focus on humans as well as actions, Blunt’s performance – difficult in its understated nature – is excellent. Brolin and especially Del Toro get more praise, doing excellent jobs, playing characters who are in control. Blunt’s tenacity in the face of constant bafflement is more impressive, though, for how sensitively drawn it is.
Sicario‘s place as a female driven or feminist (or neither) film has been greatly discussed. Kate remains baffled and uncertain of what’s happening around her throughout the film. Yet, it ought not be a surprise to see the world of law enforcement portrayed as one unwelcoming for women and in this Sicario is better than its most vociferous of its detractors have claimed. Kate’s silence is not played as an implicit aspect of her womanhood and even as the film effectively (and wisely) refrains from simonising to the audience and pointing out who’s wrong or right the narrative’s relationship with Kate is distinct. In a pivotal scene after the film’s biggest reveal, there’s a shot of Blunt in a subjective position being observed by Josh Brolin (terrifying and distinct performance). Around him is his team (of men). Everyone is shrouded in the shadows but for Kate bathed in glorious light. It’s a deft, light touch that’s one of a few moments where Deakins’ camera made me gasp in a film that has no shortage of gasp inducing moments.
“What am I doing here?” It’s a question Kate often asks herself as each time she goes through a particular issue she keeps telling herself and other, “I have to know”, what the film is asking us to confront in ourselves is whether we do need to know and whether that knowledge is important. The film’s ultimate, desultory thesis, is that some people are sharks and some people are not, which is in itself sobering because the ultimate message that it ends us with is particularly depressing – there is no hope and there is no change for any of the things that can happen in our lives. The final shot of Kate in the film is neither heroic nor a moment of cathartic mourning, but instead rather emphasises the banal ineffectiveness of a single human in the face of the world’s ever present terror. It’s the futility of living which might be why Sicario has been accused of having no overarching purpose. To miss that this pointlessness is its essential ethos is to miss the chilling sadness of the film’s coda.
Yes, that ending. Weeks after seeing it, it makes me think in the way it asks us to consider how violence/sadness/unrest has become intrinsic in some parts of the world and who is responsible for it. It’s reflective of Villeneuve’s own interests as a director, unsettling because of the way he avoids the usual routes of being being unsettling. Sicario slyly unsettles more when it chooses to end not on Emily but a moment apart from any of the main characters. There is no catharsis to be had here. I won’t get into detail for those who are yet to see the film, but it’s a change of location that affects the viewer. It’s deliberate, and it’s even transparent – an attempt for Villanevue and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan to unsettle the audience even more while ensuring their story ends with no “good guys”. Like Jóhann Jóhannsson’s propulsive, deliberate score which grounds the film Sicario does not have time to go for subtlety instead going for the jugular and confronting us in bald-faced fashion. When it leaves us, we are unsettled and uncertain. It offers few answers, if any, but that becomes its central boon. There are no answers in this violent world.
“Who do you think we learned it from?” A character asks of the violence in Mexico. The short-hand answer would be the American law enforcers. The deeper answer looms larger. We learn it from each other. We are all complicit.