A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, September 26, 2016

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Sicario is a suspenseful, well-directed, superbly acted, and finely photographed film whose chief flaw is that it can't decide between what it needs to be, an action thriller, and what it wants to be, a biting commentary on the international social and political consequences of the War on Drugs. As the latter, Sicario could almost be a postscript to Traffic (Steven Soderbergh, 2000), to the point that it casts Benicio Del Toro, who won an Oscar for the earlier film, in the key role of Alejandro, a CIA operative with a personal agenda. Emily Blunt, an actress who seems to be able to do anything (she's been cast as Mary Poppins in a forthcoming sequel), plays Kate, a young FBI agent whom we first see leading a SWAT raid on a house in Chandler, Ariz., that is suspected of being a link to a Mexican drug cartel. Not only is the house full of dozens of corpses, an outlying building explodes when agents try to open a locked trap door, killing two of them. Because of her work on the raid, Kate is offered an assignment on a special team to capture Manuel Diaz (Bernardo Saracino), the man responsible for the bombing. The operation is headed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a jokey, casual, swaggering type whom Kate's partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), mistrusts immediately. Kate herself gets stonewalled when she tries to get more details about their mission, and even what part of the government Graver and his mysterious, taciturn partner, Alejandro, work for. It's the CIA, of course, and Kate's presence on the mission is largely to provide an excuse for the presence of the agency on this side of the border, where it's not supposed to operate unless it's working with domestic law enforcement. Their first mission, in fact, is across the border, to Juárez, where they are to pick up an associate of Diaz's who has been captured and is being extradited. Much of this trip is seen from the air: We watch the line of SUV's, looking from above like large black beetles, that carry the members of the task force across the border, smoothly gliding around the traffic backed up at the checkpoint and into the city. It's on the return trip that they encounter a bottleneck: a staged traffic accident strands the convoy in traffic, where they are ambushed by cartel operatives trying to prevent the captured man from testifying. Having survived this encounter, Kate is naturally more determined than ever to get some answers to her questions about the real nature of the mission and the exact roles being played by Graver and Alejandro in it, but she will find that the more she knows, the more danger she is in. Intercut with Kate's story are vignettes of the life of a Juárez cop (Maximiliano Hernández) and his wife and young son. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan keep the significance of these scenes from us until they finally merge with the principal plotline toward the end of the film. It does not end well, of course. Kate has a disillusioning revelation about the purpose of the mission that has put her in harm's way several times, and although the downer ending of the film has an impact of its own when it comes to social and political commentary, it clashes oddly with the generic thriller medium in which it's set. But Villeneuve's direction serves both elements of the film well, Roger Deakins's cinematography received a well-deserved Oscar nomination, and Joe Walker's film editing probably deserved one.