A couple of weeks ago, I accused director Scott Cooper of destroying a seemingly infallible subject with his ugly, childish crime drama Black Mass. Now, I come to you with an opposite statement for director Denis Villeneuve and his new thriller Sicario. The plot is derivative, the characters are flat and the dialogue is artificial. That said, Villeneuve is such a brilliant filmmaker that he has basically taken a dead on arrival screenplay and given it substance and depth that writer Taylor Sheridan couldn’t have even fathomed. Sicario is an example of a film where everyone on board is trying there damnedest to breathe life into something that probably shouldn’t have even been saved in the first place. You’ll leave the film impressed by a lot of elements but unfortunately it isn’t quite good enough to deserve a repeat viewing or something beyond being called a solid piece of entertainment.
In Sicario, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) becomes the witness to a horrific, grisly crime scene in Chandler, Arizona. In the hopes of finding the men responsible, she joins a group of elite agents run by the charismatic if deadly good ol’ boy Matt (Josh Brolin) and a mysterious, quiet man with a hidden past named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). As she digs deeper into the case, she finds that the line between who’s a hero and who’s a villain might not have been as simple as she originally thought.
I’m fairly shocked and disappointed at how muted my praise is for this film. This was easily one of my most anticipated films of 2015 for multiple reasons. The film is Denis Villeneuve’s real follow up to his 2013 movie Prisoners, an energetic and spectacular psychological thriller that was my number one movie for that year. Sicario brings together the same composer (Jóhann Jóhannsson) and the same cinematographer (Roger Deakins) that made Prisoners so captivating and it also features three of my favorite actors working today. At best, this was going to be yet another terrific thriller that managed to tackle dark, haunting ideas about human nature in an inventive and exciting way. And to Villeneuve’s credit, he delivered on that promise…sort of.
All the performances are fantastic even if they’re being contributed to weak characters. As I’ll get to later, I had a lot of problems with the script. This major flaw in the movie affects everyone in the cast in a way that ranges from mildly irritating to fatal. Emily Blunt is the one negatively affected the most by the script and it’s a shame because regardless she’s the one giving the best performance. Blunt is quite down to earth as this person who’s slowly becoming caught in the violence and terror going on across the border. The film has these excellent moments of quiet where they’ll be focused on the faces of the people involved and you can see the nervousness and the anxiety in her eyes as she desperately tries to be the voice of reason in this war that has no real end. She’s especially great in the scene near the start where she is reacting to this horrific discovery that has been at the house they’re raiding.
Josh Brolin is unfortunately being tied to a very contrived character that doesn’t ever require him to step outside the box. Once again, he’s been asked to play the funny but stern macho guy. You can tell that he’s trying but I think it says something that his best performance in 2015 was in Everest, a film filled with wasted performances by great actors. The performance other than Blunt’s that stands out is Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro. Like Brolin, I don’t think Toro’s doing something that’s especially different but I also think Toro is the person least affected by the script and it shows. In comparison to the other characters, Alejandro is this quiet guy who speaks only sparingly. In that sense, he doesn’t suffer the awkward dialogue and it makes his character feel much more complete and memorable than anyone else. To Toro’s credit, he’s doing what he does best in the best way possible and he’s very intimidating and unsettling in every scene he’s in without saying that much. In the final 25 minutes, Toro pretty much becomes the main character and the film goes to places with him that are terrifying to see unfold. This moment at a dinner table is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen happen in a film in recent memory and it’s one of the few moments of brilliance in Sheridan’s script.
Of course the real stars of Sicario are the ones working behind the camera. The movie itself is mediocre but this film is perfectly directed. There is not a single aspect of the film simply from a direction standpoint that feels off or imperfect in any way. Villeneuve takes this fairly average crime film and transforms it into this visual journey into a psychological wasteland. The sound design allows for you to hear every movement of a car, every sudden gunshot and every distant uncertainty of the setting. The movie starts off with a bang and it makes sure that you’re worrying about what’s going to happen next for every scene.
He shoots the city, the people of both sides and the violence with the grace and the intimacy of a documentary. The best moments in the film are the ones where he is simply holding on these people from all these different angles living there lives. There’s a part where they’re interviewing a crowd of immigrants and it’s performed so honestly that you could take a shot from that scene and I wouldn’t be able to tell you if it was something from a movie or something done by Time Magazine. We get a glimpse of the vendors selling their products to people in their cars during traffic. We get this quiet moment of Kate dancing to country music with another man in a western bar. A scene with an important conversation pans down to see Brolin’s character wearing sandals during it. These tiny points are scattered throughout the entire film and they come together to create this world filled with a loneliness and an intensity that goes far deeper that you would expect.
There’s a scene where Kate’s car passes by these decapitated bodies hanging from a bridge. Most directors would zoom in on this and make a big deal about this type of violence but the way its shot here is very subtle and treated like some normal thing that happens on a day to day basis. This silent moment is a million times more disturbing than anything Depp did to show off in Black Mass. By the ending scene, it becomes clear in some way that Villeneuve has made the movie in this way to show that the horrors are being allowed to go on in the background of these people’s lives. The US is allowing the crime to continue and the citizens are so numb that they’ve become used to seeing things like that. You ultimately get used to it or you die trying. Sicario excels when it detaches itself from telling a story and it allows the viewer to get lost in these very detailed images of people following a routine because they have to.
I can’t give all the credit to Villeneuve though. Roger Deakins is one of the best cinematographers of all time and his work here is no exception to that statement. The aerial shots of Juarez that show the city from a distance carry the weight of walking into a dark, upsetting new world. He’s clearly the one responsible for why the film looks so raw but otherworldly at the same time. I adored how the film looks in the dark. Every shot in the third act looks incredible. From Kate going down a tunnel to a wide shot at a dinner table, the movie looks visually terrifying. The dark of night finally gives way to the full, untamed act of crime that is going on underneath it all.
Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is equally effective in creating abstract horror. There’s this one line of music that gets used throughout the film and it becomes more and more foreboding as the movie draws nearer to its climax. Not bad for the guy who made The Theory of Everything sound like a Hallmark film. I have nothing but praise for this movie for its direction. This movie gives so much life and meaning and soul to its material through cinematography, music and where the camera gets pointed. Sicario’s best weapon is what made Prisoners so magnificent, it can reflect on the darkness of life by dragging you into this landscape that you can’t help but allow yourself to be dragged entirely into. Villeneuve allows you become this ghost traveling place to place, experiencing all that this world has to offer.
I have given this movie nothing short of praise so far and I’ve tried to give the movie as much as I could before I admit the awful truth that keeps me from calling Sicario great film. When you simply look at Sheridan’s script, Sicario is a very poorly written movie. I hate to throw a guy under the bus like this but the simple fact is that everything in this movie is operating at a ten and this screenplay is operating at around a four. It’s a very quiet film that allows for the actions to take over most of the time and in some ways it makes the screenplays flaw a bit more forgivable. But then I look back on Mad Max: Fury Road, a stunning blockbuster that came out this summer that featured very little dialogue. Despite being more focused on actions rather than conversations, you can still tell that that film had a smart script. The characters don’t usually talk but when they do, they have compelling and fascinating things to say. Like Fury Road, Sicario is great when it’s focused on the environment but unlike Fury Road, whenever its characters open their mouth, it’s embarrassingly easy to find heavy flaws.
The movie has two settings when it comes to its dialogue, lifeless exposition and uncomfortably fake character development. The way people explain things in this movie comes off as so void of emotion. You never get the sense that these are real people explaining what is going on but rather a writer using people as one sided devices to tell the audience his story. An example of this is a scene near the end where Matt reveals something to Kate about Alejandro’s past. This should be this big, shocking moment but the way Matt discusses it features no subtlety and you feel ultimately detached from what is going on with them.
I can sort of forgive dry exposition, what I can’t forgive are the cringe worthy scenes where the writer tries to make the characters seem more human and relatable. The movie makes multiple attempts at comedic relief and none of them resemble anything other than something pathetic. There is this running joke with bras between Kate and her best friend that I don’t think would even make it onto a light CBS crime procedural. The ways the story explains things lacks subtlety so it’s jarring and unbelievable to see Sheridan attempting to capture their reactions to things.
The best example of this is when Kate has returned from this quick, abrupt shootout during a traffic jam. It was quick, grotesque and it resulted in Kate being forced to kill. To Villeneuve and Blunt’s credit, her shock and horror is captured quite well when he is doing these close ups on her quiet reaction to what just happened. The camera lingers on her shaking while lighting a cigarette, a sad attempt to soothe what she has just witnessed. But once Kate gets back to base and gets into a fight with Matt, the dialogue feels so blunt and generic that it ruins whatever sense of dread the last scene created towards the character of Kate.
If most of the characters are there to explain the story, Kate is there to say a small list of lines on repeat that you’ve seen used multiple times in multiple movies. “This is not what I signed up for!” “You can’t do that, that’s illegal!” She might as well be wearing a shirt that tells us that she’s the naïve, relatable one. In two hours, Kate doesn’t succeed at a concept that was done far better by Terrance Howard’s character in Prisoners. Like Kate, he was the sympathetic, kind hearted person forced into doing a horrible thing; the difference being that despite being a smaller character, his arc stills makes far more sense and contains much more heart than Kate’s. Her character is so repetitive and empty that her ultimate conclusion in the finale feels weak and chosen by the writer less to tell a realistic story and more to bring home the message.
This is just one of the cases where I find Prisoners to be much better than Sicario. The experience can best be described as what Prisoners did with better direction, a less ambitious story and less interesting characters. Sicario’s final message about the darkness of humanity, while widely different from most mainstream movies we see today, still feels like a more contrived version of the things that made me fall in love with Prisoners. I will definitely recommend this movie with even the full ticket price because the film is so well made that it still deserves to be soaked up on the big screen. Unfortunately, everything meaningful about Denis Villeneuve’s direction and Blunt and Toro’s performances feels slightly wasted on a project that could’ve easily been done by a far less competent group of people. Sicario confirms Villeneuve as one of the best directors working today but I can’t help but wish this level of brilliance was going towards material that was also on his level.
Release Date: 10/2/2015
Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay by: Taylor Sheridan