44 Films: Film 10 of 44: "Sicario" (2015)
Film 10 of 44:
Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Sicario begins in a beautifully corralled suburb in present-day Arizona. We meet Kate Macer (the doggedly intense Emily Blunt), an FBI agent with a unique skill at executing drug busts. After one house raid reveals dead bodies hidden in the dry walls, and a booby trap kills two officers, Kate is immediately enlisted in a bigger drug battle. This one involves the CIA, higher profile targets, and erratic, dangerous cross-border conquests into Mexico. Without so much as an orientation, much less a job description, Kate finds herself seated in a convoy of SUV's in Juarez, surrounded by a phalanx of CIA operatives, SWAT teams and Mexican soldiers. She's the new kid in a team charged with extraditing the imprisoned associate of a Mexican drug lord, and we learn, along with her, that anyone in the city could be a foe. This turn of events sets up what is Sicario's stand-out scene, a confrontation at the US-Mexican border that could very well be a film on its own.
Villeneuve has an almost divine dexterity at constructing tension; letting it build over dozens of on-screen minutes. Nothing seems contrived, and the payoffs are surprising and satisfying. Perhaps its the attention he pays to the human conflicts in the middle of the larger set-pieces. A story about the war on drugs is really about human nature, hierarchies, relationships, prejudices and death. We discover along with the principled and naive Kate, that drug wars are convoluted and protracted things. The backstories are complex and the interests are colossal. The good guys possess flaws and the bad guys possess virtues. No one, no matter how moral or nefarious, is above (or below) the blemishes and decencies that make us human.
Perhaps the most compelling parts of the film happen when we step off the ivory towers of law enforcement, and witness how the battles affect their little players and unwilling spectators. In one scene, Kate is persuaded onto a rooftop where she can watch Juarez safely from the American side of the border. As the sun sets, explosions play before her and the glow of flying bullets illuminate the city skyline. However she tries to intervene, the war will continue. Later, we watch a children's football game in an impoverished, sun-drenched part of Juarez get interrupted by the rattle of distant gunfire. Hardly anyone cringes. They just pause, numb and unperturbed, long enough for the fusillade to end. Among the kids is the son of a drug mule who didn't come home last night. His mother watches him play, her jaded eyes betraying a fear, not just that her husband may be dead, but her son's path is charted. It's only a matter of time.
Sicario will be a classic in the lines of the similarly-themed Traffic and The Wire. It is a testament to the strides cinema has made in 21st century storytelling and technology (there are numerous gloriously eerie aerial shots, and some scenes that play out via thermal and night vision cameras). I will speak little of the performances of Josh Brolin as Kate's grizzled, artful mentor, and Benicio Del Toro as the CIA's Mexican liaison, who packs the film's biggest gut punch. Those, you have to see for yourself. Just note what the film's title means. Or discover it, like I did.
See you tomorrow.