The lauded drug war film Sicario, produced by the semi-visionary director Dennis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy), is a good movie, just not a great one. Expertly shot, the film functions as a thrilling narco-crime drama, elevated (occasionally) into something operatic by commanding performances and palpable mood-building. Like Villeneuve’s earlier films, the world of Sicario is a world fundamentally wrong, where the tenants of recognizable society have long-ago eroded. Also similar to the director’s past work, Sicario cannot maintain this jolting, transporting energy, ultimately reverting into something far more narrow and pedestrian in nature.

Sicario begins with a virtuoso sequence of law enforcement, which brilliantly establishes the story’s hellish landscape. Roger Deakins, now in his second collaboration with Villeneuve, brings the same type of apocalyptic anxiety that he did to the director’s Prisoners, with beautiful shots of the story’s harsh, sun-baked settings (the cities flanking the U.S./Mexico border) reflecting the warlike atmosphere enveloping its human populace. Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, also a Villeneuve veteran, brings a brooding horror to this (and other) scenes as well, with a heavy, horn-based score that gives the film a powerfully awful sense of menace.

In this opening we are introduced to Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, a professional “thumper” who works for the FBI kicking in doors. During a violent SWAT raid to  recover drug cartel hostages, her team stumbles upon a proverbial house of horrors, which illustrates the level of the barbarity synonymous with the drug trade.

Aside from being a slick, visceral piece of cinema, which evocatively projects Sicario’s disturbing tone, the opening raid establishes the starkly impossible nature of the drug war. Villeneuve, working from a so-so script by fledgling screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, hammers this point home by suggesting that the opening raid is an utterly frivolous activity, and that those who participate in such activities (like Kate) are the equivalent of janitors, sweeping up a never-ending sea of carnage.

This realization functions as an important catalyst, and when Kate is offered the chance to take the fight across the border and into Ciudad Juarez, she leaps at the chance. This decision brings her into the company of two deeply threatening men: the silent, enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro – excellent) and the smarmy Matt (Josh Brolin – all hambone). Under their leadership Kate is gradually drawn into the militarized world of U.S. broder policing, where international law is flouted and the Mexican border is treated as some sort of porous triviality.

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Sicario’s politics have drawn considerable scrutiny since its release in September, and it’s easy to see why. Kate and company’s journey into Mexico is shocking and paints the country’s border communities as dystopian nightmares, the equivalent of a Western Hemisphere Fallujah or Mogadishu. Villenuve, working with Deakins and editor Joe Walker (Steve McQueen’s go-to-guy), create a nearly hallucinogenic foray into an urban battle zone, complete with mutilated corpses hanging from freeway overpasses and the continuous crackle of gunfire. This is another of the film’s high-octane moments, where the cinematography, thundering music and rapid editing tempo generates significant tension and one of the better action scenes this year.

Yet, in a time where immense antipathy for Mexicans has been brewing  in the United States, one can understand the dismay this sequence has cultivated. The people who populate this urban quagmire are nothing but anonymous figures, which are only occasionally spotted on the periphery of each frame. Any Hispanic who gets considerable exposure is depicted in an ugly light, and is often bristling with weapons, tattoos and malevolence. The way the American forces are depicted however is little better. Composed of shadowy and borderline sociopathic consultants like Del Toro’s Alejandro and Brolin’s Matt, and a cache of hulking veterans from America’s most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this motley crew is little better than violent mercenaries. Even more disturbing is how Sicario alludes to this unit as being endowed with authority by the highest levels of the U.S. government and free to operate with relative impunity. By broaching the inherent ugliness that exists on both sides of the border, Sicario refutes easy political classification or appropriation; although (as mentioned), it hasn’t stopped people from trying.

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In regards to inclusivity, Sicario is a more spectacular failure when one examines some of its individual characters and their total lack of development. Despite being positioned as the film’s primary lead, Emily Blunt’s Kate often takes a backseat to the action. To her credit, the actress hits every emotional note, particularly her devastating final scene. It’s the script that doesn’t do her any favors, gradually turning a flinty, tough-as-nails character into a wide-eyed conduit for the audience. Despite being in a rare female-led film, which places a woman in a traditionally male context, Blunt is forced to be more Ellen Paige from Inception than Jody Foster from Silence of the Lambs. Similarly, the only Mexican character (Maximiliano Hernandez’s police officer Silvio) who is more than just a face in the crowd, is clumsily handled. While we are treated to several brief scenes depicting the home life of the officer, including shots of him interacting with his wife and adoring son, it becomes quickly obvious that scripter Sheridan does not view Silvio as a worthwhile character. Instead, he is used to manipulate the audience’s empathy. He is reduced to a script contrivance, and the character’s eventual fate is something a savvy viewer should see coming from a mile away.

This lack of development is to be expected, as the film is not really about anybody but Del Toro’s silent killer. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears,” he says to Blunt’s Kate early on in Sicario’s proceedings, “but in the end you will understand.” This statement is an accurate summation of the film’s events, which admirably showcase an almost unbelievable world. What’s disappointing is that Villeneuve’s searing and investigatory approach doesn’t last. Before long Sicario’s epic scope narrows, and the question of  “why” the border is the way it is becomes utterly lost. What replaces it you may ask? Well, I can tell you it’s nothing of considerable worth. Villenuve’s film shifts dramatically in focus for its final third section, following Alejandro almost exclusively as he embarks on a rather uninspired personal campaign of venegance. 

If anything, this is Sicario’s most salient failing, and is where the film does a profound disservice to the basic nature of its topical subject matter. Because, that’s the thing; Sicario had the potential to be a film that matters. While somewhat hyperbolic, it focuses on a region that deserves more attention, where (for some) the law is a corrupt, nonexistent force, and where only madness, fear and suffering remain.

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