Sunday, November 1, 2015


For the first 30 minutes of Sicario Director Denis Villaneuve keeps us in the dark just like our protagonist Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt). From a spectator’s perspective, I was little on edge during parts of the film. Early on I got the sense that at any moment bullets could start whizzing by out of nowhere or an IED could go off unexpectedly. Villeneuve definitely took his time setting the mood. It’s all a little disorienting. And the score, courtesy of Johann Johannsson just adds to the discomfort & uncertainty.
Kate, a special ops agent, isn't quite sure who she’s working for or with, and she doesn’t know what the goal is on the latest assignment that she reluctantly volunteered for. She’s also still a little shell-shocked from the events that happened during her previous assignment at the very beginning of the film. PTSD – which is something almost exclusively associated with the military & rape when it comes to cinema - is an unspoken element within Sicario. Not only is Kate possibly suffering from a mild case of it, but so is Benicio Del Toro’s “Alejando” – another special ops agent working with Kate. And I could be speculating but I get the sense that the various gunmen & assassins (all ex-military) that work alongside Kate & Alejandro wouldn’t really know how to function in every day society.

Sicario is an interesting case of style overshadowing the substance a little bit yet it doesn't really bother me. Michael Mann pretty much created the lane for films like Sicario to exist. What I mean by “these kinds of films” are droning ambient studio films that mix drama & semi-realistic action. When you take in all that is Michael Mann I think you see where I'm coming from. In every post-Heat Mann film he always makes it a point to throw in all those randomly “cool” shots that don't serve much of  a purpose (the wolf crossing the street in Collateral, Colin Farrell zoning out and looking off in to the water in Miami Vice, Chris Hemsworth looking off in to the distance after being released from prison in Blackhat, etc). Yet at the same time he’s incredibly fascinated by the technical aspects in front of & behind the camera. He was an early pusher of digital filmmaking and he makes it a point for all of his films to have realistic action & gunfire. Obviously Michael Mann has his own influences but he still managed to create a lane that quite a few filmmakers have followed. Sure that’s a bold statement and there’s probably someone reading this right now that has something that could potentially counter my claim, but the technical & atmospheric elements within Sicario are totally from the school of Michael Mann, specifically Public Enemies, Miami Vice & Collateral.
But I’m not so tunnel-visioned on Mann’s influence that I don’t see Soderbergh’s touch (besides the fact that both Sicario & Traffic co-star Benicio Del Toro in similarly gruff roles, both films are structured similarly). And the climactic action sequence at the end of Sicario definitely has shades of the Bin Laden takedown sequence in Zero Dark Thirty.

Zero Dark Thirty / Sicario
I hope you guys aren't sick of my obsessive fascination with connecting movies to each other but I honestly cant help it. And I’m not trying to discredit Denis Villaneuve by saying he just took things from other movies and came up with Sicario. Not at all. Taking away all the stylistic influences from Mann, Soderbergh & Bigelow, Sicario is it’s own politically driven film (in terms of gender and it’s stance on the war on drugs) about an FBI agent (Kate Macer) who’s called to work with the CIA (headed up by Josh Brolin’s “Matt Graver” & Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick) to take down a drug kingpin.
Sicario makes up for films like The Counselor, Syriana, Body Of Lies, The Gunman and all those other semi-recent drug/CIA/governmental/terrorist-based movies I'm not too crazy about (actually, what kept me from seeing Sicario right away was because I thought it was going to be another one of those kinds of movies). Not to sound like a hack but I was honestly hooked from the first few moments (the score is commanding, there's not much dialogue, and you can cut the tension with a knife). I even remember letting out a “whoa” or a “oh wow” on more than one occasion while watching it. It’s a moody ambient film that gives the audience a little bit of credit from time to time by not laying everything out in a nice neat package.

Now…the politics in the film are incredibly confusing. I find the film confusing because it comes off like an anti-drug/pro-CIA/FBI film yet directed by a liberal/”progressive” thinking director. Once the smoke settled and the closing credits rolled I thought to myself “sooo…what exactly are you trying to say about the drug trade?” or “are you pro torture or anti-torture?” Sicario will also have you questioning if this was a comment about the war on drugs or, in the case of Benicio Del Toro’s character, a revenge tale hidden inside of a political drama. But the drug trade is a complicated issue so why should I expect anyone to have a hard stance on the subject matter? Drugs ruin lives in more ways than one. But the drug business is so deep at this point that a lot of crazy compromises and sacrifices have to be made (as conveyed by Josh Brolin at the end of the film).

On the slightly negative side of things, Sicario is yet another prominent film to portray Mexico as this savage land (a chunk of the story takes place in Jaurez). The portrayal of Mexicans (and Colombians) isn't exactly original. The minute we see our team cross the border in to Mexico in an effort to catch a mid-level crime boss, we see mutilated bodies hanging freely out in the open. I’m not so clueless to know that Jaurez was (is?) one of the most dangerous places on the planet (some statistics indicate that Juarez has become much safer), but Sicario still perpetuates certain stereotypes about Mexicans & Colombians on the big screen.

In terms of gender, Sicario wears its politics on its sleeve. A lot of what goes on in the film is no different from what went on in The Silence Of Lambs - a young dedicated female agent trapped inside of an all-boys club. Emily Blunt gives a great performance and I really appreciate how she’s being used in certain films these days (although I do think this film was supposed to be a platform to showcase her, Benicio Del Toro does kind of quietly steal the show). Anytime Emily Blunt’s Kate steps inside of a room (always filled with men), it reminded me of the scene in Silence when Jodie Foster tries to clear all the (male) officers out of the room so an autopsy can be done. The looks given to both Blunt & Foster in their respective films are identical. They’re looked at by their fellow officers as women first and not peers. In fact, the true reason that Emily’s character is used in Sicario is pretty fucked up (attn: indiewire – THIS is the type of film you spend your time talking about when it comes to gender, sexism, feminism, etc. NOT Mad Max Fury Road, Trainwreck or the latest Melissa McCarthy movie).
Gender also seems to come in to play with the violence in the film. Whenever Kate kills someone in the film there's a brief dramatic emotional pause. I don't know how I feel about this because rarely do we see male characters show any kind of emotion when they kill someone in an action film. But in the case of Sicario it's as if women cant kill without "feeling" or getting hormonal. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Taking a life is a big deal and it should fuck with you on some level. But how it's portrayed in Sicario is a little shaky in my opinion.

Sicario is still a success at the end of the day and one of the few films I've gone to the theater to see more than once. Even if you aren't into the subject matter within the film, the filmmaking is still both beautiful & gritty. At the end of the day no matter what problems I had with this movie (and there are a few), this is a case where style wins over everything else.


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