Sicario’s amazing filmmaking overcomes its weaknesses

Sicario

Based on title and subject matter alone, I was already picturing a version of Sicario that would have seen me trying to punch my fist through a wall. An ultraviolent treatment of the “war on drugs” from the American perspective? This material was ripe for promoting horrendous perspectives and insulting politics. But while the movie’s weaknesses are evident, they are relatively easy to ignore when faced with the unmistakable quality of its filmmaking. I am unfamiliar with director Denis Villeneuve’s previous work, but if nothing else, Sicario is one well made movie.

Let’s address the bad parts first. Sicario stars Emily Blunt as an FBI agent who enlists in a mysterious mission -led by a relaxed Josh Brolin and an enigmatic Benicio Del Toro- designed to capture one of the biggest drug-lords currently operating south of the border. Most of the movie closely follows Blunt’s character, and does so with determined strength, but it does occasionally veer into other perspectives, which tend to produce its most deficient moments.

I am referring, in particular, to a series of cut-aways to a number of scenes depicting the life of a working class Mexican family that seems to have little relation to the movie’s main storyline (outside of maybe thematic ideas) until policeman father Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) plays a slightly bigger role in the third act. Even then, knowing Silvio’s background doesn’t particularly heighten the drama. On the contrary, the overwhelmingly solemn depiction of Silvio and his family make these sequences feel insincere. The last scene of the movie in particular left a bad taste in my mouth, and I suspect not in the way the director intended.

The exhausting solemnity of these sequences seems to have been a reactionary measure to the possibility of backlash at the movie’s depiction of Mexico as nothing but a chaotically violent hellhole. Backlash that might well still be valid. To wit, when our protagonists cross the border into Ciudad Juarez, they are greeted with four decapitated bodies hanging from a bridge. By trying to be as crude as possible in the depiction of the violence inflicted by the cartel, the movie does go to certain places so ridiculous they didn’t harrow as much as they induced some serious eye-rolling.

That being said, these moments only come occasionally, and surprisingly enough, the movie does a pretty remarkable job of handling its violence. Any movie of this kind always brings to mind Truffaut’s old saying that “all war movies are pro-war movies” (because whether they want to or not, they always make war look cool), so one of the highest compliments I can pay the makers of Sicario is that I feared in anticipation of its next violent move. Outside of a third-act sequence focusing on Benicio Del Toro, which does go a little into “look how cool this guy is” territory, I was too tense to want anything violent to happen.

If I did get any pleasure out of Sicario‘s more violent and tense moments, it was in retrospect, as I tried to figure out the inner workings of its incredibly effective filmmaking. The key players in building the movie’s suspense are the cinematography, editing, and sound. We feel like there is something intentionally off about the framing of master Roger Deakins’s static camera. The close-ups are uncomfortably close, and large parts of the long shots are devoted to shadows and empty walls. The editing doesn’t adopt the rhythms of an action thriller, but those of an arthouse movie, which surprisingly makes the movie more suspenseful. It’s the quietness of the pace, and the silence in the sound mixing that makes you shrink in your seat as you fearfully anticipate the violence, which always comes with a loud and hollow bang.

At the center of it all is Blunt, who seems to be playing a little bit with her recently acquired image as a badass action star -thanks to strong roles in Looper and Edge of TomorrowShe is introduced, and the audience recognizes her as a tough FBI agent, but it is quickly clear that she is out of her depth, that she has virtually no control in this terrible situation. This doesn’t mean she is playing a weak character. Blunt, as is typical of her work, shows relentless commitment to the role, which in retrospect emerges as an allegorical figure. The symbol of American ideals, of order, of values. A symbol that -without trying to spoil anything- will be obsolete by the end of the movie.

Sicario‘s ending -not its very last scene, but what comes right before- is as bleak as a movie like this could get. It is also the most appropriate conclusion this could’ve had. One can’t expect a movie that tries to deal with the crushing violence of the drug war to be subtle, and it isn’t. One can only hope that it has something to say, and that it won’t betray the pragmatic darkness of the situation. Sicario does reach a little too far at moments, but thanks to a fabulous group of craftsmen behind the camera, the moments that work do so with the appropriate amount of fury.

Grade: I go between giving this a 7 or 8 out of 10, but the bottom line is it is well worth watching.

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