Welcome back to the problematic world of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, where shadowy men (Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro) bend and break all sorts of the laws they claim to uphold in the name of keeping Average Joes like us safe. Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario thrives here, where its main character makes more noise about jurisdictional violations by United States law enforcement than she does about the methods (torture) used to gain the information that leads them to commit those violations. This is a world where the CIA is in bed with drug cartels, every cop is corrupt, and the ends always justify the means. This grey world where the line between good and bad is so blurred that it ceases to exist infiltrates all aspects of Sicario. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay contains equal measures of frightening brilliance and slapdash melodrama. Sheridan slowly introduces an important character with no context at seemingly-random moments throughout the first and second acts, giving the audience an incredibly satisfying “ah-ha” moment when his role is finally revealed in the third. Why, then, does someone who clearly knows his craft force us to suffer through a pointless 20 minutes of Emily Blunt’s character nearly dying while hooking up with some hick from the local PD? It nets her task force some seemingly valuable information but they never act on it and the cop disappears from the movie entirely. Several others (including the film’s only black character) suffer the same fate at various points, as if Sheridan forgot they existed. It would take much more space than I have here to fully discuss the role of women in action movies throughout history so I’ll get straight to the point: we’ve been lied to. I know it’s the job of advertising and actors doing press appearances to get us to see the movie, but I went into Sicario with truly high expectations for seeing a well-developed female character with actual agency kicking some ass in a mainstream action movie. Emily Blunt’s Kate Mercer is not that character. Sicario’s first scene gives us some hope, as Mercer leads her squad into battle against several cartel soldiers presumed to have hostages. She even gets to dive out of the way of shotgun fire while gunning down her adversary in a killer move that you might see again if Bad Boys 3 ever comes out. Beyond this prologue, however, her role in the actual action is nearly nonexistent, and every single event from here until the film ends is completely beyond her control. She has no agency in her own life and we can’t help but agree with Benicio Del Toro’s character when he advises her to move to a small town where the rule of law still exists. Despite these lies, the sense of helplessness actually becomes a strength of Sicario’s overall effect, as we feel ourselves pulled along by events and circumstances we know almost nothing of; keeping its main character generally in the dark keeps us in the dark as well, which makes the truth, once it is revealed, that much more terrifying. With its flaws in mind, there’s no real reason not to see Sicario, especially if you’re like me (probably not) and wouldn’t want to miss the sure winner of this year’s Academy Award for Best Cinematography. You might know Roger Deakins’ work from most of the Coen Brothers’ movies, Skyfall (2012) or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007); Sicario is another brilliant entry into his already-ridiculously-good résumé.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro