Postcards from the Edge
By Adam Nayman

Dir. Denis Villeneuve, U.S., Lions Gate

[This article contains spoilers.]

Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins make quite a team. In Prisoners, the director and his ace DP transformed a Pittsburgh suburb into a fetid fairy-tale landscape that seemed to be rotting from the inside out. The low-lit curb-side exteriors and believably drab living rooms were so spookily well-observed that the film cast and held a certain spell even as the action and actors in the foreground kept threatening to break it. Like a Broadway production that sends its audiences out humming the sets, Prisoners was the sort of technical triumph so hollow that it could house an entire other failed artwork inside of it; the only real point of interest in the end was how filmmakers that attuned to what Kent Jones has often called “the greater drama of light and shadow” could be so deaf, dumb, and blind to the more prosaic matters of story, character, and genre.

Sicario is as brilliantly made as Prisoners, perhaps even more so; shooting in the same wide open, Southwest spaces as he did in No Country for Old Men, Deakins charges the landscape with a similar sense of portent. When the cinematographer’s camera hovers over a suburban Arizona housing development being raided by an FBI task force, it’s not just an establishing shot: it’s a concise overview of an entire, eerily prefab community, so widely scaled that it signifies outward, beyond the borders of the neighborhood and toward some larger social reality. The crashing of a SWAT vehicle through one of the walls points up the flimsiness of the structure while also suggesting the brute force methodology of the intruders; when the walls are revealed to be lined with the suffocated corpses of dozens of Mexican drug cartel kidnapping victims, the disparity between unassuming surfaces and concealed horrors is sharp and startling. This is imagistically sophisticated storytelling; this is the work of talented people.

This is also what is so obscene about Sicario, which not only matches Prisoners in terms of bogus dramaturgy and basic disregard for the laws of cinematic plausibility but also tops it as far as the ugliness of what’s being put across with such immaculate skill. The film tells the story of Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), the leader of that opening-scene raid, whose revulsion at finding dead bodies instead of live hostages—and at having two of her men blown up by a cache of hidden explosives on-site—is taken advantage of by a Department of Defense contractor, Matt (Josh Brolin), looking for help with the extraction of a cartel honcho; subtly bullied into accepting the assignment for reasons of career-advancement and shanghaied onto a private plane to Juarez accompanied by another mysterious, Colombian operative, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), Kate—and the viewer—get to ride shotgun with America’s War on Drugs, a journey that Sicario visualizes as a descent into literal and figurative darkness.

Does it ever: a shot of a team of maneuvering Yankee snipers silhouetted against a disappearing sun and getting swallowed up by blackness is piercingly eloquent. The intelligence it takes to conceive, compose, and execute this kind of sequence is undeniable, and yet so much of what happens in Sicario is so silly it’s hard to tell if we’re dealing with a directorial savant—someone who’s preternaturally gifted at one key aspect of filmmaking and oblivious to others—or a kind of insidious cynicism willfully committed to those medium-cool textures at the expense of other considerations. Even leaving aside the thinness and narrowness of Kate’s character—which gives Blunt even less to play than her fetchingly Nautilized video-game-save-point-icon/cosplay-warrior-woman in Edge of Tomorrow—and the fact that Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan have no compunction using her as, variably, a sounding board, a mute witness, and a damsel-in-distress to grease their contrived plotline, there’s never a convincing sense of why this character would agree to go along on this clandestine mission in the first place. “I have to know,” Kate tells her pal Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), but there’s little urgency in the role or the performance—and almost none of the obsessive fervor that bled through Jessica Chastain’s porcelain features in Zero Dark Thirty.

It’s worth bringing up that supposedly discredited and widely forgotten 2012 film here, and not only because it clearly functioned as a kind of stylebook for Villeneuve and his team; Sicario’s toggling between dusty documentary realism, detached formalism, and hyperbolic night-vision stylization is right out of the Kathryn Bigelow playbook. In a way, Sicario offers a regionally specific riff on Zero Dark Thirty’s revenge thematics; in both films, it’s clear that it’s a combination of staunch professionalism and personal affront that drives the heroines—and the organizations they work for—to bridle against and breach their respective institutional ethics; in both films, questions of American intervention and exceptionalism are asked, between the characters and also from the film to its audience.

The Left’s disparaging response to Zero Dark Thirty, bound up in its visceral yet apparently-not-damning-enough depictions of militarily sanctioned torture, implied that the film was at heart a piece of propaganda—a delivery device for a triumphal narrative ending with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. Maybe, but what I remember finding so mesmerizing—and unsettling—about Zero Dark Thirty was how its late-stage morph into a siege film was achieved with a conscious winnowing of emotional affect to the point of seeming robotic. The final action scene wasn’t rousing or exciting or even involving; it was staged as a high-tech fait accompli, cutting the killing of Bin Laden off from both the protagonist’s individual catharsis and, it seemed to me, the idea of national vengeance. The most salient detail in that film’s final shots was not the single tear dripping town Chastain’s face, but the cavernous, immaculate expanse of the bomber bay around her. It was as if Bigelow was saying: here is America a decade after 9/11—all locked and loaded, and no place to go.

I’m willing to concede that my reading of Zero Dark Thirty is generous, but at least the film permits space for that kind of contemplation. Sicario, by contrast, fairly luxuriates in the kind of fashionable ambivalence that takes absolutely no work—no real intellectual or moral exertion—to put onscreen, and which is often met with praise by critics and viewers who prefer even the illusion of nuance to the clear-cut bottom lines of most mainstream entertainments. The idea, which Sicario keeps in play for its duration but only really levels with in the final third, is that Kate’s passivity and weakness is not only a by-product of her immediate circumstances—her status as a woman and an outsider in a border war whose participants have earned their battle scars—but also an embodiment of liberal self-delusion as pertains to the hard (and, it’s implied, male) work of keeping America safe. The payoff of the film’s title, which refers to an ancient order of Jewish zealots whose monikers have been taken up by Latino hitmen, is that Alejandro is really a displaced cartel assassin using (or being used by) the CIA to avenge the killing of his family, and that Matt is fully aware of the situation—so much so that he’s willing to threaten Kate’s career (and worse) to keep it under her ball-cap.

As twists go, this isn’t too bad, at least on a purely mechanical level: it retrospectively justifies both Del Toro’s watchful wolfishness and Brolin’s canary-swallowed smugness, and it gives what is otherwise a pretty standard procedural a soupçon of internal ideological tension—that old social-commentariat bugaboo about the ends justifying the means. Except that, determined as they are to make Sicario a “none-more-black” thriller, Villeneuve and Deakins (and the rest of the team) wander so far onto the side of saying “yes” that they transform their ostensibly complex “meditation” on the politics and optics of controlling the proliferation of drugs (and the violence that goes with them) into an action-movie cartoon. The extended set-piece where Alejandro commandeers a police car and infiltrates his rival’s palatial mansion is shot, edited, and, worst of all, written to be breathlessly suspenseful, but all that it yields is flop sweat—it’s so strained and ridiculous that it almost doesn’t matter that in the process it also implies that this kind of clandestine, eye-for-an-eye retribution is a workable strategy for containment. Almost.

Armond White has praised Sicario as a genuinely “conservative” film in The National Review, and the fact that he’s right on the money should give pause to those who consider ideology in cinema while they’re also (rightly) praising craftsmanship. (Also, they should note that the script is much more gung-ho about torture than Zero Dark Thirty). A film that creates a straw-woman like Kate simply so she can be disabused of her by-the-book naiveté—and literally physically abused by a would-be assassin, in an aborted-sex-turned-combat scene calibrated for maximum discomfort (and which concludes with her being rescued by a stronger male ally)—is one thing; a film that does this and then circles back to her at the end to underline her weakness as systemic and tragic is rather suspect, to put it nicely.

The finale, which finds Alejandro threatening Kate’s life over the possibility of her ratting out the team, basically restages a near-identical scenario in No Country for Old Men, except those old anti-humanist monsters the Coens found a way in Kelly Macdonald’s confrontation with Javier Bardem to contrast her literal helplessness with his fundamental moral weakness. Her character’s refusal to call the fateful coin-flip that had killed off so many (male) characters before her is the lone, true act of strength in No Country for Old Men, and it pointedly ruptures the story’s basic framework (it’s no surprise that Bardem gets hit by a car right after being so boldly rejected). In Sicario, Kate signs off on Alejandro’s agenda and then puts him in her gun sights but can’t pull the trigger; the tears on her face—and staining the filmmaking—are surely of the crocodile variety. Even more reptilian is an epilogue that indicates, in the broadest—and thus laziest—terms possible, that the cycle of violence in Mexico goes on. As food for thought goes, this is strictly off the drive-thru menu.

Sicario is a film that rather decadently allows itself to get caught up in the machinations of its American or American-affiliated characters while Mexico looms in the background as an (immaculately photographed) abattoir. “They’re brilliant,” says one operative of the cartels’ strategy of stringing up decapitated corpses on the bridge out of Juarez—gangland intimidation as art direction. But it’s not just the dealers who leave bodies lying around to show they mean business, it’s the filmmakers, who, in the most dubious move of all, unfold a parallel narrative about a crooked cop and family man whose scenes with his young son are just clearly marking time until the script makes him symbolically expendable. This isn’t empathy-as-cruelty; it’s the most expedient sort of cynicism. Villenueve and Deakins make their setting feel just as poisonously alive as in Prisoners—even more so, since they’re putting across gigantically scaled images of urban blight and terror—and the sense of actual poverty being instrumentalized in the service of entertainment is vaguely appalling.

The catch-all justification for this kind of voyeuristic, seen-through-our-fingers tourism is that “this is the way it is,” which is also the rationale for Matt and Alejandro—the mindset that when things are this bad, anything goes. But Sicario doesn’t truly get inside the mixture of despair and outrage that this situation invites. Instead, the film exploits it, and leaves beautiful, befuddled Emily Blunt hypnotized by it, a stand-in for viewers who presumably want their eyes opened to the abject aspects of the drug war, and, if possible, widened in vicarious excitement. Sicario gives us plenty to look at, and yet the only thing it really illustrates is how hackneyed its maker’s motivations really are. Villeneuve is a terrific director—a youngish master. He may also be a genuine, mercenary sell-out before his time. This grimly beautiful movie is really very ugly.