On the surface, the film concerns itself with the murky appropriation of authority and justice, and the agencies that sanction such operations from behind closed doors. But as is the case in Villeneuve’s other ventures, that’s only part of the story.
For as in 2010’s Incendies, 2013’s Prisoners, and 2013’s Enemy, Sicario finds itself caught up in a singular character’s struggle to unravel greater personal mysteries. This may be open for debate, as those who have seen the film may be inclined to believe the focus shifts away from Emily Blunt’s protagonist in the last act, but this is most definitely a film driven and facilitated by her character, SWAT team agent Kate Macer, through whose eyes this tale of clandestine collusion takes place.
After a raid on a safe-house owned by drug-cartels on the border between Mexico and the U.S. reveals a rather gruesome discovery, and by extension, the monstrous levels of violent crime the FBI has to contend with, Macer is recruited by government officials into accompanying them, in a strictly advisory capacity of course, to the cartel heartland in the hope of apprehending the reigning drug lord.
Like all good characters that are so well conceived, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the role of Kate other than Blunt, an actor that can oscillate between lithe and capably tough and conflicted and exposed on a dime.
Surrounded by an almost entirely male cast, Sicario notably and gloriously fails with bugle and fanfare the so-called Bechdel test, but in doing so, explicitly illustrates the link between the criminals and the law-enforcers, two sets of equally testosteroned factions.
And if the narrative of a resourceful yet isolated woman plunged into the heart of darkness with a group of men who scorn her sex and strength of character seems familiar, that’s because Sicario works fantastically well as an inspired re-tread of James Cameron’s Aliens – from the ominous and atonal opening brass clusters of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s menacing, tacycardic score, to the fetishistic military outfitting of the grunts that accompany her, to the mysterious “company men” in tow who may harbour questionable agendas. At one point, one of the team even advises his cohort to “Stay frosty.”
But it’s Villeneuve’s ability as a consummate film maker that leaves the greatest impression. There are few contemporary directors who match his skill as a storyteller, character developer, and art director, and in acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, he has found an artistic soulmate, a technician who shares his vision that movies – even drug-cartel thrillers – can have incredibly complex and beautiful painterly aesthetics, and Mexico’s expansive skies and sands provide the canvas.
But there might be a more meta reason why Sicario feels like such a raw and explosive statement. The film had been in limbo whilst the pre-Villeneuve producers were coercing screenwriter Taylor Sheridan to change his protagonist from a woman to a man. One financier is quoted by Blunt as having said to Sheridan, “If you make her a dude, we’ll up your budget.” Villeneuve then joined the project and a set of new producers – Black Label and Thunder Road – embraced the film as it was. With this in mind, it becomes clear why Sicario is as pertinent a film about the war on drugs as it is the war on a decades-old sexist Hollywood, an industry more and more frequently being called out on its antiquated practices.
The film’s failure of the Bechtel test then, crude as such a test inherently is, comes to speak less about the flaw in the fiction, and more about the prevalence of prejudice against women, be they fighting for their voice to be heard as part of an all-male covert DOD operation, or actors seeking validation in an business purpose-built to mute them.
Sicario then succeeds in every possible way. As an immersive and intelligent thriller, it rivals this other year’s best – Mad Max: Fury Road – as a film that can delight in an unexpected multitude of disciplines. On this basis, Blade Runner 2 – another Villeneuve and Deakins production – might contain all the artistry it needs for it to stand alone, apart from its iconic legacy. And wow, wouldn’t that be a thing.
Review by Ash Verjee