“In the end, you’ll understand”
‘Sicario’ was one of the films I was sad to miss at the cinemas last year. ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Enemy’ were brilliant films and ‘Sicario’ was director Denis Villeneuve’s latest offering. After hearing rave reviews about it, I thought I was in for something of a similar quality. Whilst not wrong, I wasn’t right, either. ‘Sicario’ served up a decent slice of entertainment, but nothing to rival the power or mystery of ‘Prisoners’ or ‘Enemy.’ It was punctuated by a few scenes of outright, nerve-wracking tension, but a lot of head-scratching and the abrupt change of genre in the final third of the film caused the film to fall short of the potential it had.
FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is given a top assignment to help a government task force find the leader of a Mexican drug cartel. The head of the task force is Mark Graver (Josh Brolin), who is joined by the mysterious Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro). Both of the male leads are covered in darkness and mystery, which is both a benefit to the film and a liability. We spend much of the film, like Mercer, in the dark. She is our eyes and ears. From the first meeting of the task force, she is full of questions. The mission objective is vague, for a start. We move from scene to scene without fully understanding what is going on.
“You wanna start a war?”
For some films, like ‘Enemy’ for example, that is not a problem. In fact, that’s part of the beauty of ‘Enemy.’ It takes a few viewings to piece everything together. In ‘Sicario,’ the plot is presented in linear fashion, but the dialogue is so turgid and hard to understand that I followed the first half of the film without fully comprehending what was happening. Presumably that’s the intent, but it doesn’t work. It’s hard to invest in the story, as the story was barely there. Of course, after a few questions (from Mercer’s partner, not from Mercer herself), things become clearer, but still shaded in darkness. The abrupt change of pace in the final third of the film into a revenge story only serves to put a question mark over the whole film. It may have been foreshadowed by a single line very early on in the film, but the stark nature of the shift takes you out of the film.
Not only that, but Kate Mercer is an ineffectual protagonist. She is a mere puppet of the task force, being indirectly pulled and pushed by Graver. This isn’t the bad-ass Emily Blunt from ‘Edge of Tomorrow,’ but a nervous woman who questions things infrequently and gets on with her vague ‘job.’ She’s even used as a tool of seduction. The men in ‘Sicario’ hold all the power; the women are either making breakfast or are Mercer, as clueless as the audience about what’s really happening. Even after the real nature of the task force is revealed, she’s still in the dark (as the audience are). I understand the necessity of having a clueless protagonist to introduce us to a certain world, but here there are few introductions. Yes, it’s Juarez, a hellhole of a place. Yes, America is waging a war on drugs. But can’t we make the plot a little bit sensible?
“What are we looking for?”
Some might find the above flaws part of the film’s quality. There are blinding spots of quality throughout the film. The opening scene, with it’s landscape shots and pulse-pounding immediacy, is one of them. We are thrown into the middle of an FBI SWAT raid, as agents surround the house and a tank ploughs through the wall. It’s a virtuoso opening, with only a glimmer of the tension to come. ‘Sicario’ contains one of the greatest scenes of palpable tension and suspense in film during the scene where a Mexican prisoner is escorted across the border to the USA. It slowly builds up, showing us the place of Juarez and a brief stop outside the prison. But when they reach a traffic jam, every centimetre of the screen becomes a threat. My nails were digging in to my hands, I was clenching my fist so tightly! Every second is heart-stopping, as we are waiting for someone to attack…Truly, it’s the best part of the film. No other scene matches the tension, and shortly after the middle section of the film is noticeably slacker and saggy.
Not only that, but the ‘war on drugs’ is presented as a literal war, right from the beginning. A tank crashes into a house. The SWAT team resembles an army. Throughout the film, allusions are made to being a soldier and being at war. In the last third of the film, night vision and thermal vision are utilised to remind us of those nightly news videos of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Seeing the ‘war on drugs’ as a literal war may not be anything new, but in ‘Sicario’ it is presented as a war as never before. There are people who can’t be trusted, people who are in it for themselves, and pen-pushers who just want results at any cost (without dirtying themselves by getting directly involved).
There is a good film sown through ‘Sicario,’ but it’s hidden among obfuscation and needless mystery. Yes, the ‘war on drugs’ may make monsters out of the U.S., but that message is confused by the tacked on revenge story at the end. There’s enjoyment to be had, especially the opening scene and the tense highway scene. Apart from that, ‘Sicario’ suffers from a static protagonist and bouts of boredom. A missed opportunity for Villeneuve to add to his impressive resume.
VERDICT: 6/10. ‘Sicario’ is beautifully shot, and some scenes portray tension and suspense like no other film. However, a confusing story, poor protagonist and a change of genre towards the end harm the film.