There is so much to admire in Sicario that it seems wrong to confess I could never fully engage with it. I kept trying to find a way in, but the film stifled me at every turn. One could posit that the film is meant to be observed more so than felt, but that cannot be, since every fiber of its being is about seismic impact – of blunt force, of vicious brutality, of shocking discovery. The audience is like a protagonist by proxy. It’s unfortunate, then, that the film continually rebuffs any attempt to probe past its surface procedural.
Not that it’s an uninteresting procedural. This story is no less compelling than any other competent border-crossing tactical thriller with semi-political undertones… but no more, either. We are given a first-person perspective as FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is enlisted to join a task force led by a jaded Department of Defense representative (Josh Brolin) that’s intended to cut down the lethal and increasingly destructive Juarez drug cartel from its roots in Mexico. Kate is a true believer – buttoned-up, mission-driven, by-the-book. The film opens on a raid that uncovers multiple bodies hidden within the walls of an Arizona home and results in the deaths of two field agents. Justice for the grisly outcome of said mission is the carrot the DOD dangles in order to lure Kate onto their team.
We don’t learn much else about Kate – other than the fact that she hasn’t purchased a new bra in months, a mighty revelatory character detail, indeed – which is problematic since she is our eyes and ears for the mission, and by extension, the film. It’s one thing for the DOD’s hazy operation – which involves luring a senior Juarez boss back to the home base to gain access to the cartel’s ultimate kingpin – to appear inscrutable. But the fact that we’re never allowed anything more than tertiary insight into what makes Kate tick bars us from immersing in the narrative and, therefore, feeling the impact of its turns and revelations.
That everything on screen is so beautifully rendered makes it all the more frustrating. Sicario is directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy), and what a filmmaker he is, crafting each frame as a gorgeous standalone composition, illuminating even the dust particles floating about desolate spaces. He studies each sequence as if he too is trying to break through the indomitable wall of the screenplay (by first-time feature writer Taylor Sheridan), which is more interested in shades of red than shades of gray. Once again working in tandem with the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, and buoyed by a pitch-black, fatalistic score by Johann Johannsson, Villeneuve pulls out literally every stop in order to wring emotion and meaning out of this material, but the material is strident in its opposition.
As the classified operation inches closer to its goal, the script entrenches itself in procedural minutiae, further alienating us from the characters and providing little more than random surface-level rationales for the on-screen exploits. Any revelations transpire from telling rather than showing, with no setup and forced payoff. While the action ramps up, engagement wears thin. It doesn’t much help that through all of this, Kate, our would-be heroine, is rendered inert and robbed of all agency, giving us nothing to latch onto as the film rushes toward its conclusion. To be fair, this is informed by one of the film’s only successful thematic notions, of the person being dwarfed by the machine, but even that is conveyed with rote observation rather than subtle nuance.
“Sicario” is translated from Spanish as “hit man,” which in the context of the film can be interpreted any number of ways, but the most ironic is that the surface narrative suffocates any attempts at artful subtext by Villeneuve and his crew. For all the impassioned work on screen, from Villeneuve’s compositions to Deakins’ lighting to Johannsson’s pulsating music to the especially futile plight of the actors, who work tirelessly to push past the limiting templates of their characters, all is sacrificed to the bog of the screenplay. Ultimately, Sicario is a film about a soulless enterprise that loses its own soul in the making.