Shooting Both Sides of International Politics in Sicario

"The CIA's not supposed to work this side of the fence."

I've been excited for Sicario ever since it was announced because I thought that after Edge of Tomorrow Emily Blunt had finally been given the action hero role she so deserved. It was one of my most anticipated movies of the year given what I knew going in (Denis Villeneuve still hasn't missed a mark for me, Roger Deakins is some kind of camera god), and the movie managed to meet those high expectations without being at all what I expected. There's plenty of action here, but there are no heroes.

Like Villeneuve's previous efforts Prisoners and Polytechnique, Sicario presents two sides of a conflict without ever coming down on one side or the other. It opens with the framework that Mexico is the enemy (we see through the perspective of the Americans, Mexican drug cartels are defiling corpses and displaying them openly in the streets), so when the tables inevitably turn and we see that America is doing the same sort of evil deeds as Mexico, it's easy to take this as the film pointing its finger at America as the "real" villain.

But that would be missing the forest for the trees. If Sicario were interested in condemning America, it wouldn't end with its final scene in Mexico. It is not interested in pointing fingers, it's more of a Rorschach test that shows both sides of the problem without placing blame or proposing solutions. Villeneuve sees himself in the tradition of documentary filmmaking, and here he tries to duplicate this nonpartisan-but-still-political, "fly on the wall" perspective in fiction film. We can react to it—and part of the film's power and its importance lies in its ability to provoke—but these reactions are not the movie. Sicario merely tells us that there's a war being waged; it's our job to decide how to fight it.

This question of how to react to extremism forms the foundation of the ideological conflict between Emily Blunt, a young FBI agent who's earned some respect in her department by following protocol, and the heedless leadership of the new task force she volunteers to join. Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro bring her into a mission to stop a Mexican drug cartel, but it quickly becomes clear that they're willing to turn to extra-legal means in order to accomplish their ends, and Blunt becomes uncomfortable with the position she signed on for.

Blunt's character is the kind of person who can tell another officer to report "the truth" of the events they experienced together because she has a strong ethical code of what's right and what's wrong. For her, there is a definitive truth. For Brolin and Del Toro, the truth is something more fluid. They're men for whom the ends justify the means. They're the kind of people you want never to have power over you because they're not even the slightest bit afraid to use it. They are the violent cowboys who won the West not with diplomacy, but with the gun.

But as easy as it is to recognize the excessive nature of their violent ways, it's much harder to find a better solution that still actually works. As Blunt says to her previous partner (Daniel Kaluuya), they previous work in Arizona was clean and by the books, but it wasn't making a difference. They were just mopping up the remains of a greater battle being fought elsewhere. This is a struggle that Villeneuve confronted previously in Prisoners: how do we deal with extreme violence without resorting to extreme violence ourselves?

This is why reading Sicario as an indictment of American (or Mexican) politics is a slight misunderstanding of the film. Villeneuve identifies and sympathizes not only with Blunt's desire for a peaceful, legal, and ethical solution to this violence in opposition to both America's and Mexico's extremism; he also identifies and sympathizes with Brolin and Del Toro as the agents of reactionary eye-for-an-eye militarism. As much as we can see the world as a civilized place, the savagery of the frontier never really left us, and the only solution we have for sedating it is more violent cowboys.

There's a sense in which all police procedurals are built from an updated retelling of the Western narrative (police as the civilizing influence against the savagery of crime), but Sicario has even more similarities with the classic genre. Maybe I'm hung up on this because I've been watching so many Westerns lately, but Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro's characters both share a lot in common with John Wayne in The Searchers. They're xenophobically determined to destroy the racial Other, motivated in equal parts by the need for stability in the domestic sphere and by a more personal, vengeful violence.

Beyond thematic similarities, Roger Deakins also shoots the movie like a western, with massive wide shots of sweeping desert landscapes and claustrophobic close ups in closed-off interiors. One of the most beautiful shots in the movie depicts a group of soldiers marching down a hill at sunset, and the camera lingers as each of their jet black silhouettes disappears beneath the ground. Helicopter shots draw the world in equal parts menace and majesty. Sicario is a film whose central concern is one of contested, borderline locations (on the border between the United States and Mexico) just as the Western depicted the contested border between Yankees and Native Americans.

Villeneuve's continued collaboration with Roger Deakins brings the best out of each of them, with Villeneuve allowing Deakins to push himself as an artist and Deakins in turn pulling out the almost noir-ish darkness of Villeneuve's direction. Sicario is first and foremost a film about tension, and Deakins helps Villeneuve construct scenes so clearly that the cinematic staging stands in for the plot. With a story about the ambiguity in the drug war and in international politics, Sicario doesn't have the luxury of setting up elaborate narrative conflicts, but it doesn't need to. It does just as well with its visual storytelling.

This tension is also maintained through the heavy, intrusive score and sound editing. Music and sound in this film are used as a blunt instrument, but they fit the purpose they're called to elegantly enough. There were plenty of moments where I couldn't decide whether to have a panic attack or poop in my pants, and a lot of that has to do with the way composer Johann Johannsson and the sound department control the tone of a scene aurally. In collaboration with film editor Joe Walker (Steve McQueen's editor, whom Michael Mann also borrowed recently for Blackhat), scenes play out slowly and in long, wide shots that function on the premise that it's scariest to know where you are and not want to be there.

Of course, these well crafted scenes would be nothing without performances to carry them forward, and Sicario boasts a quite impressive cast. Emily Blunt achieves the conflicted complexity of trying to stay strong in a situation she's apprehensive about being in, but Benicio Del Toro was an even bigger surprise for me as the grisled and world-weary military ghost, turning in one of the best performances I've seen from him in years. I'm not one to spend a lot of time talking about performances, but these two thoroughly convinced me without ever being flashy or calling attention to themselves, and to me that's much more interesting than someone wearing a prosthetic or doing the disease du jour.

If you boil it down, Sicario is essentially just another police procedural, and the dialogue in particular calls attention to this lineage (Taylor Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay, also coincidentally played small parts in NCIS and CSI). But this is the kind of movie that gives the lie to the notion of separating film into genre films and "true drama". It doesn't "transcend" its genre, it's just a genre film that also happens to be great.

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Bonus Notes!

Denis Villeneuve, on visiting Juarez in preparation for making the film: "Honestly, what I felt was like the same as some war zones, where you feel a tension coming from the ground. Where there’s something that is not right and there are forces that are not right there. There are shadows and you feel it. It’s like being in a place that has suffered too much and you feel the fear in the way people walk, the way people look at each other." (source)