Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario” (2015)

Notable Festivals: Cannes, Toronto

The drug trade figures prominently in contemporary action films for the same reason that war does. The violent, aggressive nature of the arena lends itself to inherently dramatic situations and pulse pounding developments. This multi-billion dollar shadow industry is an unfathomably complex and predatory machine, often reduced to simplistic good-vs-evil morality for the sake of narrative brevity and visceral entertainment. The DVD bargain bin at Wal-Mart is chock-full of brainless guns-and-glory genre films; thoughtful, meditative films like Steven Soderbergh’s TRAFFIC (2000) are exceedingly rare. Then there are works like director Denis Villeneuve’s SICARIO (2015)— expertly-crafted descents into the bowels of a hell of our own making. 

Conceived at the height of Ciudad Juarez’s devastating war against the cartels, SICARIO (the Spanish word for “hitman”) shines a harsh UV light on America’s culpability in the conflict and our subsequent corrosion. The screenplay was written by actor/scribe Taylor Sheridan, who has quickly carved out a reputation for himself as an Aaron Sorkin-type wordsmith in the neo-western genre. Villeneuve instantly responded to Sheridan’s bleak vision of savagery and bureaucratic corruption, his subsequent involvement elevating the project with his own ascendant momentum. The combination of Sheridan’s terse prose and Villeneuve’s imaginative eye results in a propulsive and devastating final product that digs deep to excavate what little humanity there is to find in such a brutal, inhospitable environment.

Shot in the bone-dry deserts outside Albuquerque, New Mexico on a budget of $30 million (3), SICARIO pits a small, elite team of American drug enforcement agents against the snake pit that is the Sonora Cartel. The action takes place mostly in Arizona, but the story is primarily concerned with the thin strip of land that forms the border between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, TX— the only thing separating the idyllic tidiness of suburban American from a sprawling war zone. Emily Blunt headlines SICARIO as Kate Macer, an ambitious, hardened FBI agent and the closest thing the film has to a moral center. Blunt delivers a powerhouse performance as a driven individual in constant conflict with her inherent womanhood in a profession defined by aggressive masculine posturing. Macer stands as a compelling window through which to view this shadowy underworld, a beacon of integrity whose relative inexperience in the field has yet to corrode her idealism. She compensates for her physical vulnerability with an emotional fortitude, trimming herself of life’s excess fat in pursuit of an almost-monastic devotion to her work. Her big mistake, of course, is in thinking she’s successfully steeled herself against the ugliness of her world when the fact is she’s wholly unprepared for the evils that await her across the border. Brought onto a clandestine Department of Defense operation as a kind of observer/consultant after a grisly (and explosive) discovery at a suburban drug den, Macer’s journey through SICARIO is one of world-shattering disillusionment and of literal nausea— Blunt reportedly contracted such a severe case of food poisoning during the Mexico portion of the shoot that she needed a constant IV drip just to get through the day (1).

Macer’s — and by extension, our — escorts through this veritable hell on earth prove no more reliable than the cartel, possessed of a cynical “whatever-it-takes” philosophy towards their work. They act with men with nothing to lose, because they are. Their souls were lost long ago to this bitter conflict, seemingly as old as time itself. Though he is identified as Colombian in nationality, Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro is a man without a country. He may as well be a man without a name or a face, such is his embodiment of the intelligence-world slang term “spook”. Alejandro is as mysterious as he is polished; a deadly assassin with a monastic discipline equal to Macer’s own yet profoundly haunted by a past trauma that SICARIO slowly reveals to its captive audience. His focus is always forward; his compass pointed due north towards the people responsible for an all-consuming loss. Yet, despite his coldness, he is possessed of a flicker of warmth that manifests itself in an arms-length protectiveness towards Macer. The opposite can be said of Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a seemingly-warm and friendly man concealing an icy interior. A relic of the George W. Bush era, (and in all likelihood, a secret CIA agent) DOD Advisor Graver is a cavalier cowboy in flip flops. He relishes in the brutality of his work, suggesting underlying sociopathic inclinations even as he justifies his actions in the name of the greater good. He’s emblematic of the moral decay sustained by both the war on drugs and the war on terror, witlessly contributing to the perpetual escalation of conflict in the belief that brute force and domination is enough to subdue an enemy who will cross any line to stay alive.

SICARIO’s supporting cast underscores the swirling vortex of danger surrounding Macer while also affording her a tether to her humanity. Victor Garber is authoritative yet caring as her boss, Dave Jennings. Daniel Kaluuya plays Reggie Wayne, her partner in the field and the closest thing she has to family. A veteran of Iraq, Reggie is compelled to look out for Macer’s well-being as if she were a sister. Refreshingly, there’s no suggestion of a romantic charge between the two; this allows the story to better focus on Macer’s monastic devotion to her work and the growing conflict therein. Jon Bernthal has a minor role to play in the guise of Ted, a folksy Phoenix cop turned crooked by the cartels. He’s a signifier of the cartel’s snaking influence within our borders, as well as a very immediate reminder that, as tough as Macer makes herself out to be, she’ll always be at a physical disadvantage against men. Then there’s Maximilianio Hernandez as Silvio, a member of Mexico’s State Police. Seemingly unconnected to the main storyline, SICARIO gradually weaves Silvio’s arc into the fabric of the plot; he’s presented at first as an average cop and a somewhat-reluctant family man before heading off into the night in his police cruiser to his second job— as a drug mule for the cartels. While his storyline terminates rather abruptly (indeed, the only conclusion offered here is the haunting absence his family feels in its wake), he’s an important plot device that demonstrates just how deeply the tentacles of the cartels have dug into the civic infrastructure of Mexico.

After their successful first collaboration with PRISONERS, Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins reunite to bring an effectively ominous flair to SICARIO’s Oscar-nominated look. One shot in particular — a deceptively-simple wide shot of American black ops soldiers marching down into the drug tunnels at sunset— effectively communicates the surgical, yet impressionistic approach that the filmmakers employ throughout. A perfect summation of story, style, and theme, this moment silhouettes the troops against a thin flare of red-orange sunlight on the horizon as they descend underground, their black shapes dissolving into the black horizon line and effectively disappearing. Beyond the shot’s literal narrative significance, it also speaks to the core themes that make SICARIO such an unsettlingly resonant experience: a descent into a hellish underworld, the loss of integrity and morality (signified by the silhouettes), and the idea of being swallowed up by a brutal machine much larger than any individual’s comprehension. To achieve such a perfectly-calibrated shot as this (and many, many others), precision & control understandably becomes the name of the game, with the filmmakers utilizing the crispness of digital to complement their surgical approach to composition. 

Shooting in 4K resolution on the Arri Alexa and a set of Zeiss Master Primes, Deakins and Villeneuve imbue the 2.39:1 frame with the hard light of the American southwest without losing fine detail in the process. Interiors often see the windows blown out, for instance, but atmospheric closeups reveal particles of dust floating past. Similarly, dramatic clouds are packed with subtle gradations of shadow. SICARIO’s tightly-controlled color palette also evokes the burned-out harshness of the characters’ surroundings. Browns, blacks, greys, and various shades of tan & brown dominate the frame, accentuated by punches of red blood or the accented pop of royal blue (seen predominantly in the dress shirt Alejandro wears underneath his suit jacket, or the hard plastic chairs that populate institutional facilities). Fluorescent lights tend to take on sickly saffron or steely blue hues, while incandescent lanterns glow with a warm amber color. The camerawork reinforces the filmmakers’ sensation of control, with propulsive tracking movements effectively locking the audience in for a relentless ride.

SICARIO’s core cinematographic strength, however, lies in its use of perspective. Each composition is informed by the perspective of said shot’s observer. This can be in a subjective sense, where we’re placed directly into the headspace of Macer or Alejandro, or via the comparatively-objective viewpoint of surveillance drones flying overhead. SICARIO frequently deploys drones to capture butter-smooth aerials of foreboding desert landscapes (and the hardscrabble patches of civilization within them). The effect is one of “omniscient malevolence”— an uncaring creator looking down in disappointment on his compromised creations (a common sensation in Villeneuve’s work). At the same time, it also suggests mankind’s quest to conquer the elements, be it the clean, manicured lines of American suburbia or the sprawling chaos of Juarez slums. This idea is also manifest in the adoption of specialty night vision and thermal imaging cameras for the riveting tunnel sequence, allowing Macer and her cohorts to peer into the blackness and gain the tactical advantage.

Other key collaborators, like returning production designer Patrice Vermette and composer Jóhan Jóhannsonn, reinforce the looming danger of SICARIO’s cinematography. Vermette helps Deakins achieve the film’s tightly-controlled color palette while infusing each frame with a tactile grit. Each scene no doubt posed an intimidating logistical challenge, but one of the production’s most complicated efforts was the building of a full-scale replica of the Juarez border crossing (1). Though it’s based on real-world architecture, the film amplifies an unintended byproduct of its design— its creation of a contained killing field that entraps Macer and her colleagues. Their movements impeded by concrete walls and standstill traffic, each car potentially housing a small band of armed marauders, the situation easily becomes a standout set piece that effectively communicates the hidden, unrelenting danger at hand. Jóhannsson does the same (to an even greater degree) with his score. Working from Villeneuve’s prompt that the score sound like a “a pulse from the desert” (2) — not so much musical in nature but more like an underground threat akin to John Williams’ plodding JAWS theme — Jóhansson crafts a throbbing, propulsive suite of cues that evoke the proverbial “belly of the beast”. Droning cellos & horns convey a stomach-churning sense of malice, suggesting the drug trade as a labyrinthine machine designed for the express purpose of grinding humanity to a pulp. At key junctures, Jóhannson deploys an ethereal soprano— a cautionary canary in the coal mine that cuts through the churning sonic machinery, reminding us of our protagonist’s physical fragility within it even as it suggests the possibility of escape. Indeed, Jóhansson’s score makes SICARIO a uniquely transcendent experience, albeit a deeply disquieting one. It is, arguably, the capstone to the late composer’s relatively brief career.

Aside from its impeccable technical pedigree, this oft-mentioned atmosphere of foreboding and looming danger is perhaps the clearest sign of Villeneuve’s hand. Like POLYTECHNIQUE (2009), the characteristic oppressiveness of his aesthetic is conveyed through claustrophobic means, closing off our periphery via architectural motifs like tunnels and hallways while offering only one direction of movement: forward… towards the gaping maw of the beast. The aforementioned Juarez border crossing sequence is an excellent example of this, though a more memorable one may be the breathtaking sequence in which Macer follows Graver’s team into an underground labyrinth of smuggling tunnels. Villeneuve’s adherence to her subjective perspective throughout the film is a core part of this scene’s dread-filled resonance, collapsing our own sense of space and geography to her very narrow view (further complicated by bulky headgear and the lack of light). The rattle of unseen gunfire echoes and bounces off the dirt walls, becoming an ominous portent of an immediate horror we must confront head-on. The entire sequence is designed to highlight Macer’s unique vulnerabilities within such an oppressively masculine environment even as it seeks to establish her strengths, succeeding in large part because of Villeneuve’s careerlong exploration of gender dynamics from feminine perspectives. As a female operative in the male-dominated intelligence & counterterrorism field, her experience is one of constant alienation: physically, mentally, sexually, and politically. She’s devoted to the principles of righteousness that animate drug enforcement, not necessarily to the bureaucratic alphabet soup of organizations that constitute it. Indeed, SICARIO positions Macer’s primary battle as one waged not against the cartels, but against the inhumanity of the CIA, the FBI, and the DOD— the very system that keeps this vicious beast fed.

Towards this end, SICARIO makes a compelling point that many other drug thrillers merely nod to (if they even acknowledge it at all): in adopting its hardline neo-con stance towards total eradication, the war on drugs has effectively turned our intelligence institutions into organized crime syndicates, and their operations into state-sponsored illegality. If the pursuit of drug enforcement is ultimately a corrosive activity, as SICARIO suggests, then corruption becomes the only way to maintain order — or at least, the illusion of order. A key narrative development finds Macer discovering that the entire purpose of her presence is a lie; she’s not there to observe and learn, as Graver initially informs her, but rather to stand as an unwitting pawn that gives Graver and his team the operational jurisdiction to pursue their aims across the border. Instead of working together towards a common good, the various intelligence agencies are using each other to further their own ends. In effect, they are squabbling warlords, having descended into a kind of tribalism enabled by infinite operating budgets. This organized crime conceit becomes clear by film’s end, when Alejandro breaks into Macer’s apartment and forces her (at gunpoint) to sign papers that falsely testify to the legality of their operation. It may not be the most visual sequence as far as climaxes go, but this development is arguably the most devastating thing that could happen to Macer. It’s a violation of her integrity — the source of her strength. Being forced to betray herself and her ideals is far more damaging than the physical assault she’s routinely threatened with in her line of work. Bleak though this ending may be, it also offers a shred of optimism: Alejandro leaves her with a cryptic warning — “this is a land of wolves now” — and urges her to quit & move away. He’s effectively saying that she’s not cut out for this life, but what he means is that she’s too good for it. She still has time to save herself from the maw of this twisted machine; there’s still time to reclaim her humanity.

SICARIO would continue the rapid ascendancy of Villeneuve’s profile within the American film industry, grossing $84.9 million in worldwide box office receipts (4) and earning a swath of positive reviews from critics. It would also prove a strong presence within the festival circuit, premiering in competition for the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as being programmed in the Special Presentations section of the Toronto Film Festival (5). Several Academy Award nominations would follow, with SICARIO honored for its cinematography, original score, and sound editing. A film as uncompromising as this tends not to escape controversy, however; the mayor of Juarez urged his people to boycott the film, criticizing its inaccurate representation of the city as unreflective of the significant progress he’d made in cleaning up the situation since 2010 (6). Villeneuve claimed creative license, conceding that while the situation may no longer be completely accurate, the film had nonetheless been conceived at the height of Juarez’s deterioration (7) and was thus a comparatively faithful representation for the purposes of the story. SICARIO’s success would also spawn an unexpected franchise, with Sheridan ultimately positioning his script as the first in a trilogy of neo-westerns focused on the exploits of Alejandro and Graver. The second of these, SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO (2018) would see Brolin and Del Toro return… but not Villeneuve. Directed instead by Stefano Sollima, the sequel could not fully replicate the visceral sensation of the original, and subsequent chatter about a third installment seems to have petered out entirely.

Whether the sequel would have fared better had Villeneuve stayed on is open to debate— the role of director is only one small ingredient in the mysterious alchemy that constitutes a given project. Perhaps it’s better this way; SICARIO makes it overwhelmingly clear that Villeneuve had left it all on the field. He had said everything there was for him to say on this subject, and to repeat it would not do him any favors beyond perhaps an upgrade to a bigger house. Villeneuve’s immediate future lay not in franchise filmmaking (at least, not yet), but in leveraging his intimidating technical sophistication and weighty artistic voice towards the further exploration of humanity’s struggle against its greatest enemy: itself.

SICARIO is currently available on 4K ultra high definition Blu Ray via Lionsgate.

Credits:

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Produced by: Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Molly Smith, Edward L. McDonnell

Director of Photography: Roger Deakins

Production Designer: Patrice Vermette

Edited by: Joe Walker

Music by: Jóhann Jóhannsson

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. “A Pulse From The Desert”- Blu Ray Supplement
  3. Via Wikipedia: D’Alessandro, Anthony (October 5, 2015). “‘The Martian’ Defies ‘Gravity’ On Friday; ‘Everest’ & ‘The Walk’ Largely Earthbound”. Deadline Hollywood.
  4. Via Wikipedia:  “Sicario (2015)”. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved August 10, 2016.
  5. Via Wikipedia: Kay, Jeremy (July 28, 2015). “Toronto to open with ‘Demolition’; world premieres for ‘Trumbo’, ‘The Program'”. ScreenDaily.com. Archived from the original on July 29, 2015. Retrieved July 28,2015.
  6. Via Wikipedia: Nájar, Alberto (October 7, 2015). “¿Por qué la película “Sicario” enoja tanto a Ciudad Juárez?” (in Spanish). BBC. BBC Mundo. Archived from the original on November 14, 2015. Retrieved May 23, 2016.
  7. Via Wikipedia: Burnett, Victoria (October 11, 2015). “Portrayal of Juárez in ‘Sicario’ Vexes Residents Trying to Move Past Dark Times”. The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 4, 2016. Retrieved January 17, 2016. The turnaround for Juárez began in 2012 and has been significant. Kidnappings have plummeted — officially there have been none in 20 months — and the murder rate has fallen from as many as eight a day during the worst times in 2010 to 20 to 30 per month now.

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