The Company of Wolves: Villeneuve’s Superb Packaging Enhances Customary Cartel Themes
There’s much to be excited about with Sicario, the latest film from Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve, a dark, brooding thriller at times drenched and dripping with intense dread. Applying a similar enhanced style to the pulpy origins of the child kidnapping film Prisoners in 2013, Villeneuve is extremely adept at morphing familiar tropes into fresh presentation. However, those hungering for more than a nicely dressed endeavor may be disappointed to find Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay to be lacking in certain regards, sacrificing character development at the cost of providing audiences with realizations on corruption they already know.
We’re informed up front Sicario is a word hailing from ancient Jerusalem, applied to those that hunted Romans, but today the word means hitman in Mexico. Enter FBI agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt), head of a unit specializing in kidnapping, in the midst of a bust in Arizona. But her team stumbles upon something more grisly, a home owned by a leading member of the Sonora drug cartel stuffed with decomposing corpses in the walls. The raid is considered a success, and it results in her boss (Victor Garber) handing her over to the leaders of a top secret mission run by Matt (Josh Brolin), a CIA operative irritatingly vague about their goal. Macy only knows they want to stir up trouble to cause a man called Diaz, owner of the home, to travel back to Mexico to consult with the big boss. They follow Diaz and nab the head of the snake. Another mysterious figure along for the ride is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who describes the need to catch Diaz’s boss as akin to finding a vaccine.
Working once more with DoP Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s Sicario feels even more ominously beautiful in its superb framing, with a handful of highly engrossing action sequences, including a tightly choreographed flight across the Mexico/US border. A shot of operatives walking into the horizon as their shadows melt into the darkness at the bottom of the frame is also one of many gorgeously hued moments bleeding across the screen. And yet, as technically assured as all of this is, including one of the tensest scores to feature in a genre picture in recent memory (courtesy of Johann Johannsson), Sicario feels too hollow.
Cast performances are enjoyable, but since everyone has potential secret agendas, we don’t learn much about any of them. Josh Brolin is in his usual smarmy amusing mode, while we can project a bit of brittle humanity onto Benicio Del Toro. The lead protagonist is Emily Blunt, an expert FBI agent caught up in a world where nothing, as usual, is what it seems. But for someone so adept, someone defined by her experience, Sheridan’s script illogically handicaps her as the consummate do-gooder, a straight arrow so unflinching she’s unable to rightly discern what’s going on before her very eyes.
One could say Villeneuve and Sheridan have intentionally presented a passive female character, an innocent shaped, morphed, and ruined by the men all around her. However, deeper readings tends to feel like clutching at straws here. When given the opportunity, Blunt’s Kate Macy makes all the wrong choices, not thinking clearly as she’s warned against storming into a bank, for instance. Though Blunt’s performance is solid, the ‘relationship’ the script forces on her and Del Toro is also handled without finesse. Early on he slyly comments Macy reminds him of someone dear to him. We find out who and then we have another repeated sequence of this, the moment now desperate to convey an emotional response.
“It’s brilliant, what they do,” another agent comments in reference to cartel violence as we witness several decapitated bodies hanging from a bridge. And Sicario nearly streamlines this brilliance, conveying the repugnant, horrific reality to great effect. But whatever mind games are being played between the film’s characters, they aren’t anything we haven’t seen already, even considering the importance of its lead female character.
Reviewed on May 19 at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival – Main Competition. 121 Mins.