Sicario (2015) / An essay in film
You will doubt everything we do but in the end you will understand
Upon the second watching of this film, you would be forgiven for doubling down on the factuality that there were two movies on the go here. While this fledgling critic still seeks to find his feet in the quagmire of value-judgement review, he’ll in the interim proclaim that: one cannot love a movie simply for the quality of its cinematography, score, acting and editing; a film needs the underpinning by a healthy story too. And by the time I had realised that the narrative focalisation had jumped over to another character towards the tunnel-end of the movie, there was much in the way of me loving Sicario.
Let us start at the beginning. From the very first shot, the troika of Villeneuve, Deakins and Johansson throw us into a modern day galley in the form of a SWAT truck. Any light that finds its way into the opening shot, has smuggled itself through the trap door from the main deck, appearing from a world of light, which makes us imagine that it belongs not to our uniformed characters but rather to others.
We rock along with the special FBI Kidnapping Unit and sweat in tense solidarity. Then, the trireme batters itself through the walls of a gloomy cartel safe-house. The tactical team sweep through a dangerous and dimly lit bungalow, narrowly escaping enemy fire. Thumper, Kate (Emily Blunt), reveals that she is tough and in her line of work, consistently in the firing line. The cartel, by the existence of the safe-house, is found to have penetrated deep into the Arizona suburbs and therefore America, and thusly the commentary on the American war on drugs across the US/Mexico border and all the collateral damage, commences.
The remainder of the film is wound as tautly.
Our brave protagonist, Kate, is lost the entire way through the narrative, amidst spooks, special forces and nameless clandestine operatives. And as we’re hauled along in convoy with the barely-legal team of para-militaries, the state of her certainty devolves. Her devolution is attributable to the mixed morals and questions of jurisdiction that seem to be in conflict from her beliefs and the inter-agency men helmed by Matt (Josh Brolin).
This all builds up to the eventual discovery of and resolution to enter through a cartel tunnel into Mexico. Kate discovers that she is in fact a toothless chaperone, invited into the operation only to legitimise an additional covert-op, the purpose of which she is only slowly coming to discover. She is used by the Deep-State employees and she is used by Villeneuve and Co (more on this right soon). This is where the plot also starts to disintegrate in focus (more on this also after we speak about other aspects of the film).
Roger Deakins, having defected from the Bros Coen’s stable, has made for himself a legacy. A legacy whereby it is impossible to deny his presence, both at the time of watching and in review. And here, between him and Villeneuve, they’ve concocted a panoply of cinematic shots. Aerial shot documentations of the Sierra Madre Oriental lowlands. Satellite/drone cruising. A night-vision-tracked insurgency. A classic montage of stills. A plethora of visceral, naturally lit sequences and an action sequence for the age too.
And while nodding to these aspects of the film which are noticeable and admirable, by the second watching, you cannot ignore issues with the plot.
A plot may be convoluted, but let there at least be enough solid information so as to stitch it together by your own hand. Discerning motives from human psychological is doable but a mission dossier where the information is unclear or insufficient or require large inductive leaps, it is distracting.
Which will bring you to the question, why did the story of Alejandro become so pronounced after the tunnel sequence?
Following on from the initial motivation of the task force, which was to cut off the head of the snake i.e. eliminating Fausto Alarcón, we can say that the necessity for the covert operation is justified. Apparently the task force conducts such business at least once, by a discreet ‘in’: the tunnel. Give them that: Alejandro is the task force man to do it and he needed someone to take him to Alarcón. This is the manner in which they choose to enter Mexico. The fact that they operate outside of the rules is facilitated in this scene: the reason for Kate’s inclusion was made apparent before the tunnel crossing but she wanted to come along anyway, she was curious, let’s say? But then what we essentially hear after she sees Alejandro on the other side, and after Matt’s exposition about Alejandro and the cartels, is that the whole thing is really about controlling the drug trade. And oh, Alejandro’s molten desire for revenge. Then the rest of the movie is now about Alejandro. And that leads to questions. Questions that make one reassess the entire movie you’ve just been watching.
For me the questions go something like this: Alejandro was a Mexican prosecutor of the Sonora cartel. Either, A) he was crooked and worked for the Medellín cartel, helping them by prosecuting Sonora extra hard or B) he was just a normal, unaffiliated prosecutor. In both cases, the leader of the Sonora cartel, Fausto Alarcón, ordered the execution of his wife and child. He has motivation for revenge. Bookmark for a second.
Knowing that the CIA allegedly want the Medellín cartel to be the sole cartel for ease of control purposes, we must ask here too: do the CIA and Medellín communicate and do they have a relationship? We will presume yes, otherwise Alejandro, who now works for Medellín apparently, would never have been at the pre-“El Paso” meeting. A) if they do, did they ask Medellín to organise someone to come assassinate Alacròn in a win-win situation or B) did they request Alejandro who was in their employ because he has a revenge mission which leads to a win-win-win scenario?
If he were crooked and worked for Medellín as a prosecutor, after the death of his family, did Medellín command, offer or accept a request to train him as a sicario?
If he weren’t working for them, did he approach them and ask them to take him up as a sicario trainee?
Or if the CIA and Medellín speak, did the CIA suggest or request Alejandro as a candidate for sicario training and then employed him from Medellín? This one seems must be the inferred scenario because Brolin’s Matt’s vagueness suggests it so. But it is a stretch. The film-goer might want to know all of this. Or is it nit-picking? I wondered. It felt like an important part of the story as we’re wondering how he came to be in the fortunate position that Villeneuve and Co. and the CIA have afforded him.
And to return, we also wonder about the intention of Villeneuve and Co. (we know the CIA’s) with regards to Kate.
The move to Alejandro’s story is the shift towards a second focalisation point. Where we previously followed the story of Kate within the larger drug-war-commentary milieu, it’s too late to become so large a part of the story as what Alejandro does. It’s an error. And the story does not have space for three large characters. Initially it worked when it was only the messy war on drugs and Kate. Or if it would also have worked if it were the war on drugs and Alejandro, that would’ve been a different case. Here Villeneuve and Co. have used Kate to set-up a high-stakes environment for a couple of vengeance-genre tropes to close-it-all-off. It could be an elaborate meta-commentary on the gender stereotype that the inter-agency men extol when they use Kate, that is, using Emily Blunt’s character for their purposes: the director and writer use Emily Blunt/Kate to set up for a sweet revenge-assassin movie within a movie.
For the character of Kate, throughout the film, the word “sicario” comes to sound and look suspiciously closer and closer to the word “precarious”. But perhaps that’s just it, the plot “hits” you like an assassin, like an assassin would. And that’s done by raising the leaded story of Alejandro the Assassin to prime plot status.
Perhaps I’m nit-picking a narrative that was nominated for the Palm d’Or at Cannes and also earned several Oscar and BAFTA nominations, but sometimes a disjointed plot makes you spend film time trying to figure out what you’re watching and why it is as it is, and that can undermine everything the film is trying to accomplish.
That being said, after all and highly subjectively, the things I loved the most were Benicio Del Toro simply acting and the superimposed title at the very end. The movie is a slow-burn, something that the behind camera ensemble has achieved remarkably well. A revenge story where a former prosecutor, now a “sicario” i.e. a man of a particular set of unique skills, can undergo such a transition at the very least, goes to show that mastery is still possible in the latter-day, amidst multi-nation drug wars and stuff.
Villneuve let’s us know two things with this movie. He is versatile in that he can draw on so many different techniques and inspirations. He can build serious tension. He also lets us know that Roger Deakins is in his stable, brandishing the whip of the Domnius caste right alongside him. Possibly with a tighter plot, this reviewer might tote Villeneuve as an accomplished director of this time.