With his second foray into mainstream cinema,1 Villeneuve delivers a strong, nuanced take on the increasing militarisation of United States police forces and the war on drugs with enough substance to appease long-time fans and enough bells and whistles to please a wider, less cinephilic audience. While remaining a sustained effort overall, clear meddling from producers, serving to undercut Villeneuve’s previously demonstrated mastery over complex plotting and structure, holds his latest back from reaching its full potential.
Sicario opens on the bust from hell, resulting in the death of a suspect and multiple police officers, and uncovering the corpses of numerous Mexican kidnapping victims; casualties of the Cartel crisis afflicting the upper regions of South America. Hungry for vengeance, FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt), is enlisted into an interdepartmental sting on an anonymous drug lord led by Matt (Josh Brolin), under the guise that they will be going after “the real men responsible for” the opening bloodbath.2 After meeting Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a retired lawyer with Cartel connections who’s being taken along for the ride, and taking part in a (clearly illegal) reconnaissance mission across the US/Mexican border, it becomes clear that Kate is an agent out of her depth, as she slowly attempts to piece together the reality of the situation she’s found herself in.
Unfortunately where Enemy allowed its bleak, claustrophobic tone envelop you with little explanation of plot, Sicario hammers you over the head with clunky exposition, lacking subtlety as conversations are bookended with cliffnotes and imagery that would have (in another Villeneuve venture) remained hidden in frame are met with close-ups in following shots, just so there’s no chance you could have possibly missed them. It’s a pretty poor way to go about constructing a “mainstream arthouse” film that’s supposed to hinge on a proxy who is constantly out of the loop, and Taylor Sheridan’s script never overcomes the forcedness of its studio-note driven emphasis on the summarisation of plot. The same cannot be said for Roger Deakins’ wonderful cinematography, even when it’s at its worst, poorly assembled in the cutting room by Joe Walker,3 every frame feels alive, oozing with an uneasy tension in its desert settings that fills your lungs with dust.
In fact, to give credit where credit’s due, once you look past the hand-holding editing and clunky exposition, everything else is near brilliant. In addition to Deakins’ aforementioned cinematography, there’s some wonderfully ambitious sound design, alongside Villeneuve’s ever impressive colour grading and set dressing, and two absolutely stand-out performances in Blunt’s Kate, and Del Toro’s Alejandro. It’s a thematically sound effort too, with a much needed critique of the masculinity crisis of America’s special forces, the militarization of US police forces, and the ongoing war on drugs, as well as an embedded metadiscussion of the fallout of the collapse of Colombia’s Medellín Cartel. All of this pales in comparison, however, to Villeneuve’s embedded critique of rape culture and sexualised violence that underscores near every conversation and major interaction with Kate.
By marketing a film on the back of gung-ho machismo before subjecting his audience to a takedown of the largest issue pervasive within modern masculine “bro” culture,4 Villeneuve has constructed a piece of extremely subversive mainstream cinema that, due to its major structural problems, could never be accused of not sitting firmly within the current Hollywood canon. Although the film itself is by no means a masterpiece, nor is it anywhere near on par with previous efforts, it’s still a worthwhile venture. In saying that, one has to question how Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2 will fare given that, between this and Prisoners, he hasn’t exactly demonstrated himself as one to strongly rally against the sort of studio interference that could ruin such a potentially tenuous concept.