Denis Villeneuve's “Sicario” opens with a title card that reads: “The word Sicario comes from the zealots of Jerusalem, killers who hunted the Romans who invaded their homeland. In Mexico, Sicario means hitman.” When we are introduced to a world beyond the already savage scenery found on U.S soil, we start to meet our “Sicario,” and his lawlessness and freedom granted by our government to commit cross both codes of conducts and moral boundaries. Something that the narrative treats itself in accordance with this character in which it crosses lines that may disturb audiences, and delivers a dreaded atmosphere where no light is shined through. Something that Villeneuve’s past films like “Enemy” and “Prisoners” analyze as well, testing an audience limits in absorbing an amount of bleakness that we as filmgoers are unaccustomed to.
The film follows it's title card with this heavy score, one that repeats itself throughout the film. Johan Johansson composes this sound of grimness, matching the film’s tone, as it draws us closer to the screen. From there, we are placed inside of a swat truck, one that is about to force its way into a house by ramming through its wall at full speed. F.B.I units and local swat teams swarm the house. Searching throughout the house for suspects, Kate (Emily Blunt) barges into a room where a man with a shotgun is waiting for her. He shoots, she ducks, she fires, and he falls. It’s a quick transition of events in which we see a woman who knows this is part of the job, but a piece that you want to avoid as much as possible.
Why was he protecting this room though? There’s nothing in there, until her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), notices something that resides within the wall, behind the hole created by Kate’s (Emily Blunt) attacker. They pull back this thin sheet of drywall to discover bodies wrapped in plastic bags. Their butchered, bloody, bound like the packaging of meat, and there’s more than thirty of them throughout the walls of the house. It’s a rough and merciless sequence of events that set a tone that is dour and dark and filled with moral ambiguity.
That tone doesn’t kick into high gear until Kate’s (Emily Blunt) record and ability to scratch the surface of these cases draws the attention of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). He’s an advisor of sorts, one that reeks of C.I.A and is mysterious in both his reasoning and his objectives. He likes what he hears from her, and brings her along a mission to find a drug trafficker in El Paso, but we learn that he’s actually in Juarez, Mexico. Introduced to an even more mysterious compadre named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), Kate (Emily Blunt) finds herself apart of a group of men that shoot first and ask for permission later.
The scene that exemplifies this takes place shortly after their arrival to Juarez in which their objective is to retrieve this high-level drug trafficker from local authorities and transport him across the border for questioning in exchange for residence in prison on American soil. On their way back to the border they run into a little mishap in which a broken down car blocks their escape route. Stuck in traffic, the tension builds as cars begin to pull past the convoy slowly. Each person becoming a possible attacker, a possible cartel member, a potential killer. The scene builds to a crescendo that Deakins produces with vigor as the camera resides in the car, pointing out at the cronies, circling like jackals. Joe Walker’s editing assists in assembling this masterpiece of tension that eventually climax’s with gunfire and bloodshed, bloodshed that horrifies Kate (Emily Blunt), and tells her that these guys are playing by different rules.
It’s the best sequence in the movie because it introduces a multitude of storylines, as well as informs us of the tone being set. All of this occurs while a memorable shootout takes place, which is where the film begins to stumble. Denis Villeneuve, Roger Deakins, and Johan Johansson bring an immersive level of production that Sheridan’s screenplay struggles to meet.
The story itself is not flawed, per say, nor is it nonsensical. It all makes sense and has answers to our questions, but it is admittedly basic. It’s a story you’d expect in a mild to solid quality film that doesn’t match the technical mastery that we see with “Sicario.” It’s not the basicness that gives me that annoying itch that keeps me from dubbing this film as something great, it’s the lack of purpose to the story.
What is the end game? What is the message? Why are we viewing these events? These are inquiries that Sheridan doesn’t provide solutions too. It’s a long, enveloped view on morality, but what are we supposed to take away from that examination. How does this affect our views on immigration, drug crime, and the politics surrounding the drug war itself? Sheridan never takes a stance; he refuses to do so.
The frustrating aspect is that he lays down the breadcrumbs to follow that could lead to a big message like that of Kate (Emily Blunt) confronting her superiors and demanding a semblance of procedure, in which her higher up breaks down how far up the chain these orders stem from, as far as the Oval office. He then states: “if your fear is operating out of bounds, I am telling you, you are not. The boundary's been moved.”
From here you’d expect more focus on how far we are willing to move that boundary as a society, but we, instead, rely back on a story that turns into a revenge thriller that is brought to life by a remarkable team of filmmakers. Deakins, as I said, lenses the film with vigor and provides a shot that tells a better story than Sheridan can. It’s a wide shot with the sunset residing in the foreground and the silhouettes of these domestic soldiers walking down into the darkness that awaits them. It’s visual storytelling foretelling how these men are walking into a darkness where the light no longer meets, a final threshold for our protagonist to confront.
Emily Blunt brings that protagonist to life, but she is more of an observer than a hero. We go where she goes, and she is the shield of morality that doesn’t conflict with the world she’s brought into but attempts to learn from it. Realizing that her by the book mentality barely allows her to scratch the surface of this world. She’s not shaking trees, forcing the fruit to fall out, she’s merely mowing the yard at the neighboring house.
Kaluuya and Brolin are exceptional in their roles as well, delivering an amount of seriousness to the film that maintains the tone. Kaluuya depicts Kate’s (Emily Blunt) partner who is a former lawyer and believes in the law but knows that we can’t cut off the head of a snake if we’re given a spork. Brolin is that mysterious government agent who crosses every threshold possible with one goal in mind. He’s far more comfortable around men in uniform than those everyday people; he lives in a world that he’s been dragged into, fighting a war he believes in waging.
Benicio Del Toro is the “Sicario” of the story; he’s the man who belongs to a Colombian cartel. He works for whoever he can to find his vengeance for the men that beheaded his wife and threw his daughter in a bin of acid. He’s the hitman for hire that keeps the government's hand clean by a technicality, allowing him to do all the dirty work for them to clean up later on. Kate (Emily Blunt) opposes him at one point in which he responds “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end, you will understand.”
In the end though, I don’t understand. Sheridan is making the complex problem of immigration feel even more complicated, not answering or providing an opinion. He, like most of us, is stunned by the callousness shown by these “gangs," though they seem more like terrorist organizations. How can we combat such a problem? How do we begin to separate those innocent of the crime from the ones that are not? Our current president has chosen a path that most of us have revolted against, but we have to acknowledge the complexity of the problem, and the inherent dangers within it. I, unlike Sheridan, will attempt to take a stance, sadly, I don’t have artists like Villeneuve and Deakins to back me up.