Denis Villeneuve makes great films. Seriously. Incendies, though hinged on a pretty singular plot occurrence, is beautiful, gripping and horrifying. Prisoners was, if I’m remembering correctly, my favorite film of a few years back, and the story about what people do in states of crisis is brilliant. So, a film about drug cartels starring my number two lady crush Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benecio del Toro that’s shot by Roger Deakin? Good lord, wild squirrels couldn’t drag me away.
Denis Villeneuve isn’t reinventing the wheel with Sicario. This isn’t a film about drug cartels and the American government that, if you’ve ever seen/read anything about drug cartels, is going to introduce you to a new perspective on the horrifying shit-show that particular situation is. Sicario is a quintessential drug film. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an idealistic FBI agent who works the kidnapping beat on the border of America and Mexico. After discovering a “murder house” a stones throw from the border wall (amongst other things) she’s recruited by grinning spook Matt Graver (Josh Brolin using his Bush charm to devastating affect here) to join a cross-agency “team” aimed at the cutting off the head of the drug cartel snake. Part of this “team” is Alejandro (Benecio del Toro being fucking the very best Benecio del Toro), a mysterious figure who’s bad in an interrogation, good with a gun, and about as dangerous a human as you might imagine BDT would play in a drug cartel movie. The story is this: idealism in the drug war is a dangerous thing and over the course of two beautifully shot, beautifully paced, shockingly disturbing hours, Villeneuve explores in various degrees of depth just how bad the drug cartel situation is. By placing Kate Macer as the avatar for the audience and literally telling her, and us, almost nothing about the situation she’s plowing head first into, Villeneuve is able to rope the viewer in as complacent part of everything that takes place. When Macer, Graver and Alejandro gun down two cars of assassins at the border, it brought my stomach into my mouth, partially because Roger Deakin shot the shit out the scene, but more so because you’re so in the head of Blunt’s Macer (a workshop study in how to make a bland, by-the-books character remarkably interesting) that you as the viewer have no idea what’s going to happen. And when it does, well, it’s fucking gruesome. Villeneuve isn’t dumb, and he trickles out the information to Macer and the viewer slowly and with purpose, each scene becoming a slow unveiling of just how fucked up this whole border situation is. This is not a film that will recalibrate your beliefs on the connections between the workings of the US government and the criminal aspects of border Mexico, but I don’t believe that Villeneuve intends it to be. Instead it’s his take on an extremely present scenario, a true master of the genre turning his gaze towards a well worn subject. And, to be quite honest, it is nearly a perfect film experience.
I’ve been fairly appalled as of late by the experiences regarding violence in films I’ve run into at various screenings in San Francisco. There is nothing funny or redemptive or even uplifting about Sicario. It is a brutal movie that highlights the role of deception and violence in our shared operations with Mexico as well as the horrifying web of crime that seemingly drives almost everything forward. Yet, at times in this film, people laughed when people died, at one point a man start clapping in what, when you see this film, is the most shocking portion of it. It’s as if we’ve digested the violence of our daily lives and in response, perhaps even in an effort to process it, American audiences now associate violence with action films, where laughter and cheering seem respectable responses. Here’s your lesson: they’re not.