Sicario and all the images you see in this review are owned by Lionsgate
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Isn’t it great to that we start getting GOOD movies again? I mean sure, Black Mass had its problems but compared to some of the crap I had to sit through in the last two months, it was practically Kubrick. Now we’re getting this movie AND The Martian in the same week without a single bible thumping propaganda piece in sight! Does this tale about government agencies working against the Cartel manage to be one of the better films of the year, or is a disappointing procedural that will get lost in the shuffle by the time the Oscars roll around? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who’s head of some sort of tactical response team in the FBI stumbles across a horrifying crime scene during one of her missions where the Cartel has apparently been burying people they kill in the walls of the building. Okay… well it gets even worse when the team accidently sets off a trap bomb that may have killed any remaining hostages that the team thought were on the premises. Despite the awful day she had, the silver lining comes in when she catches the attention of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who offers her a chance to work with him on more direct missions against the Cartel. She agrees to go with him and meets with Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who’s a complete mystery and may not even be working for the United States in any sort of official capacity. Still, he proves to be very effective in the line of duty as he and Matt (along with Kate who’s still adjusting to their methods) work on operations that will definitely cut the Cartel’s legs out from under them. Still, she has her reservations to the actions they take and once her partner from the tactical response team Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) gets in on it to, it’s clear that her conscious is getting the better of her and that Matt and Alejandro aren’t exactly who they seem to be. Will Kate decide that their methods, while unorthodox, are necessary for the war they’re trying to fight, or will she not allow herself to go through the mental hoops necessary to somehow justify their actions and her own?
Sicario is amazing… in parts. For every two or three elements that makes this a spectacular film, there’s one that holds it back. Some scenes are jaw dropping in the sheet artistry of its execution, but then other scenes are just dull. Two of the characters in this are fascinating and a joy to watch, but then the MAIN character (and her partner) are… not. The movie at its best is when it’s focused and in the moment, but then it tried to give us a message about the bigger picture that I thought fell flat. All of this makes it an oddly frustrating film that constantly impresses you with its high points but then pulls you out when the flaws start creeping in.
Josh Brolin is one of my favorite actors working today and I do like Benicio Del Toro in a lot of things (I’m one those people who actually enjoyed The Wolfman). Both of them in this though are on a whole other level. They remain distant from the main character (and therefore the audience) for the majority of the movie but what we do see of them speaks volumes. Both of them know EXACTLY what they are doing at all times without wavering and without contemplation. While all this is still new to Kate, these two have been at it for long enough that they’ve practically replaced their humanity with a detached sense of duty and (in Josh Brolin’s case especially) wry humor. When you look at these two operate and how successful they are in the horrifying situations they willingly put themselves in, you have to wonder just how necessary it is for people in this position to adopt that kind of attitude to not only be good at what they do but to merely survive. Contrast that with Kate and Reggie who spend nearly two thirds of the movie’s running time complaining and demanding answers and just being an overall drag to everything going on. I get that the point here is to show that in our pursuit to get things done we may lose sight of what’s really important, but it’s damn near incessant with these two characters and it feels intentionally like the filmmaker is trying to manipulate you into hating Kate and Reggie so that their script flip towards the end will be that much more… flip-ier or something.
This really is what keeps this movie from being as good as it should be. I can complain about small stuff like a bar scene that goes on too long or that OCCASIONALLY the motion blur is too much (I’d love to see certain parts of this shot at 60FPS), but those are small quibbles that I could get over. The story itself just doesn’t work especially towards the end and this is all due to the message it wants to send. It’s that bullshit of “when you fight with monsters, don’t be surprised when you become one of them” or “If this many people are getting hurt, how could the ends justify the means?” Sorry, but despite how hard they try to get that across, I just don’t buy that Josh Brolin or Benicio Del Toro are as bad as the scumbags who amputate dead bodies and hang them off of bridges. Don’t get me wrong. Brolin and Del Toro are pretty lousy throughout this, but for most of the running time they were playing it off as more of a “shades of gray” thing which I thought was much more compelling. Kate is brought on to this task force because she’s good at what she does but also has to wrestle with what they are doing. She’s seeing these two go further and further with their tactics, but she’s also RIGHT THERE in the moment and is constantly put in danger. It’s easy to judge a situation in hindsight or from a courtroom (and thank goodness we do have that system in place) but at least it was showing that the people Brolin and Del Toro were up against weren’t playing by the rules either. I’m a huge fan of 24, but I’m keenly aware that the kind of tactics they use in that show would ONLY work in a fictional universe, and I felt similar about it here. In real life, Del Toro and Brolin should be in jail (just like Jack Bauer) but in a movie like this, I can accept their actions. Maybe that’s what was throwing me off; not that they push a message about the consequences of not doing things by the book, but that this message was being delivered in a movie that hadn’t establish itself as a parallel to the real world. It’s not like the actions Brolin and Del Toro take have any tangible consequences and whenever they DO take extreme action, it’s always against the worst people who we KNOW are bad guys because that’s the kind of movie this is, or so I thought. Actually, even with the ending it still IS that kind of movie. It just has a pretty lame twist at the end. I won’t go too far into it, but Brolin has some shady dealings going on that are talked about EXACTLY ONCE and we never see the consequences of it so I never really bought it. It’d be like if he said that he shot down Santa Claus last week but we never see the crashed sleigh, the crying kids, or the mutilated reindeer. He just says he did it and that’s supposed to make him the bad guy now. Benicio Del Toro’s villainous turn is much clearer (they actually show us the horrible actions instead of just telling us about them in a vague sort of way), but I guess it never really connected with me the way it should have. Maybe it was just my conscious trying to justify his awful actions (because I liked him so much in this movie before them) but I felt that what he does at the end was less of a natural progression of his character and more like a very dopey way to FORCE the audience to go against him.
At the end it seems that movie wants to you to go back to Kate’s (and to a greater extent, Reggie’s) point of view which was that these people are awful and we are all complicit in their crimes. Alright I guess, but I feel that that may be too black and white of a moral to lay on this when so much of the movie was about there being shades of gray and the decisions you HAVE to make when you are right there in those extreme circumstances. For a movie that is so wonderfully and thoughtfully crafted in terms of visuals, sound, staging, and action, to then go so simplistic with its moral at the end just made this film feel a bit uneven. Still, I think that MAYBE I’m overly defensive about THIS aspect of the movie simply because of how much I absolutely LOVED Brolin and Del Toro throughout as tough as nails, get the job done no matter what, bad asses and then felt a bit guilty when the movie goes SO MUCH in the other direction to show you that these guys are not cool or badass. They’re thugs and horrible people that I really liked a lot. Maybe the movie did a bad job of going from one extreme to the other (turning them from unflappable decisive lawmen to scumbags) or maybe I feel bad about being on their side for so long and want an excuse. Either way, my enjoyment of the movie was tempered because of this.
I’ve been focusing a lot on the negative aspects of this, but there’s one thing that this movie does MAGNIFICENTLY throughout. This is one of the best looking movies of the year and one of the most creatively shot in a long time which makes since because this was shot by none other than Roger Deakins; the man behind some really great looking films including Skyfall. The highlight for me was a convoy through Juarez to the US Border with a Cartel leader who they were able to capture. There are so many beautiful shots from several different unique perspectives. Couple that with the expertly crafted sound design which gives off a feeling between The Shining and Eraserhead that makes you uneasy throughout. The tension in this one scene is suffocating and absolutely perfect. The amount of detail in each one of the shots and the way it’s all edited together is magnificent to watch for those who love to see how the scenes are put together as much as the actual events onscreen. The only faults I have on the production side are the aforementioned moments where the motion blur is a bit much, and that some of the sound (especially that of the engines) is cranked up a bit too high in a way that feels manipulative the same way that the loud stingers happen whenever there’s a jump scare in a horror movie. Still, those are only SMALL issues that barely do anything to detract from how well this is filmed.
This was directed by Denis Villeneuve who was behind Prisoners which from what I understand had a lot of similar themes about how ugly humanity can get when it’s at its most righteous and petty. I get what he’s trying to get across with this movie, but for me it came in an imperfect package. So much of this movie was about the visceral thrills, the stunning cinematography, and realities of a situation that many of us don’t want to think about. To then switch gears at the end to squeeze in a message about the depths of horrors for humanity didn’t work for me, but maybe I was caught up in the other part of the movie to appreciate the direction it decided to go in. This is definitely one of the best movies of the year even if it did lose me towards the end of it.
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