Monday, January 30, 2017

"Sicario": review

2015's "Sicario" is a drug-crime drama directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya, and Josh Brolin. (The word sicario comes from the Latin sicarius, meaning "killer" or "assassin." A title card informs us that, in Mexico, sicario means "hitman.") Blunt plays Kate Macer, a principled, by-the-book FBI agent who heads a kidnap-retrieval task force. Much of Macer's work has involved Latin drug cartels, and as the movie begins, she and her team burst into a property that is likely owned by Manuel Diaz, a higher-up in the Sonora cartel. Macer's friend and teammate Reggie (Kaluuya) discovers that the cartel safehouse is a grisly hiding place for dozens of bodies that have been hidden behind drywall and in crawlspaces all throughout the property. A bomb goes off as Macer's team continues its inspection; she loses two men, but her successful raid catches the attention of the CIA and certain mysterious government liaisons.

Still shaken in the aftermath of her operation, Macer is taken into a conference room where she meets Matt Graver (Brolin), a laid-back gent in flip-flops who poses seemingly rude questions about Macer's marital and familial status. Graver wants to know whether Macer is the person he needs on his team, which is aiming higher than Manuel Diaz in order to bring down the Sonora cartel's big boss: Fausto Alarcón. Macer's boss Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) tells Macer to think carefully before volunteering for this CIA op; Macer volunteers on the condition that the men who bombed two of her team will be brought to justice. She is then told she'll be heading to El Paso to pick up Guillermo, brother of Manuel Diaz.

On the morning Macer is to fly out, she meets Graver (Reggie, somewhat redundantly, tells her not to trust him) on the tarmac, and she also meets Graver's ostensible partner, Alejandro Gillick (del Toro), a taciturn, world-weary fellow with a dangerous look about him. Macer discovers, to her consternation, that she'll be flying to Juárez, Mexico, not to El Paso, Texas, to pick up Guillermo. Gillick eventually opens up at one point to caution Macer that she will be seeing things she doesn't understand, and she won't know whom to trust, but she should have faith that, in the end, everything will make sense. The importance of this moment will resonate throughout the rest of the film as Macer is forced to witness violation after violation of law and procedure in the US government's effort to prosecute its drug war.

"Sicario" isn't so much an action film as it is a slow-burn drama. There were moments when I felt that director Villeneuve was channeling David Fincher in terms of pacing and atmospherics. By the end of the movie, we find out who the "sicario" of the title is, as well as what motivates him. What's strange about the movie is that Kate Macer is our point-of-view character, and while she starts out as smart and capable, her role throughout the film is shaved inexorably down to the point where she is little more than a victim and a bystander, a humble pawn in a vast and long-running game.

One reviewer that I read said the film is anti-feminist in that sense because Macer's arc is one of gradual, steady disempowerment. That's one way to read the story, but I didn't see this as an attack on a woman by the patriarchy: to me, the film was trying to make a point about the soul-crushing nature of the drug war itself. One character—maybe it was Graver—says at a crucial moment that the best we can hope for, in the drug war, is a semblance of order, i.e., stability, with no major shifts in the status quo. It's a sinister echo of Jesus' line in the Bible that "the poor you will always have with you." There is simply no resolution to this problem—not unless all drugs are suddenly legalized. Kate is rendered impotent, but she remains our primary point-of-view character, except for those moments when the sinister sicario does his thing. Morally outraged, Kate Macer has one last chance, at the very end of the film, to stand up for her principles when she is told by the sicario, at gunpoint, to sign a document that essentially legitimizes the entire dirty operation to take Fausto Alarcón out. Does she refuse on principle, or does she sign out of a fearful sense of self-preservation?

I liked the movie's dramatic structure. I liked the idea of a potent and morally upright main character whose potency and uprightness fade over the course of the story so that the eponymous sicario can come to dominate the proceedings. I like that the sicario himself isn't treated like a cipher: we come to understand his motivations and his humanity; he's not some blank force of nature. "Sicario" was, in that sense, a very unconventional movie. Its story beats moved in unexpected directions despite the slow, deliberate pacing—and I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised when one character who had death written all over him didn't die by the end of the film.

"Sicario" is an issues movie: it's making a point about the vast futility and the tentacular nature of the current drug war. Another reviewer noted how the film trafficked in dualities: contrasts in weather (sun versus storm), contrasts between rich and poor, contrasts between the principled and the morally flexible. What's ironic is that, as morally complex as the movie is, it probably doesn't even scratch the surface of the drug war's actual, mephitic reality. If you're like me, you'll find the movie simultaneously worth watching and deeply depressing.

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