With Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, a pummeling potboiler dressed to the nines in contradiction and complication, it is tempting to pull the same old same old, the routine, now a ritual, that has been carted out for every “drug war” motion picture since Steven Soderbergh’s genre-defining Traffic. It is tempting to layer criticism under a diaphanous ruse of beautifully skulking ambiguity, to throw down the time-tested gauntlet of “characters not in black-and-white, but in gray”. It is tempting to go the epistemological route and employ critique about how Sicario sees the crippling no man’s land that is the War on Drugs, that is spans the gamut from down-in-the-trenches to up-in-the-boardroom. To claim that it “sees all sides” and “plays no favorites”.
None of that is really true. Sicario doesn’t have any food for thought about the War on Drugs, and plainly, I am not sure it thinks it does, which is, depending on your point of view, its guiding light or its crutch. Villeneuve’s previous film, 2013’s Prisoners, was a similarly-minded exploitation film with art-house aspirations, a work that ought to have wielded the name of an Argento or a Carpenter but instead felt itself a Godard. It was, essentially, a Halloween trick, drawing audiences in with promises of slick thrills (which it offered) but pretending, at every step of the way, to turn its back on the cadaverous, waning graveyard filmmaking it knew in its heart. It was a work of schlock, of trash, masquerading as a “serious” film with something to say about revenge. It was a gaslighting effort, essentially, or a way to tell the audience over and over again that they were watching a hardened think piece, when in reality they were watching a dime-store novel on the screen.
Not that there is anything wrong with a dime-store novel, and Sicario seems proud of its legacy as a dime-store Western. It just so happens that this pulp fiction (despite all the true story hoodoo, don’t call this film fact) was brought to the screen by John Ford. Well, not quite, but you get the idea: superficial genre exercises, if stripped to their essentials, can be fantastically concussive “pure cinema”, theme or narrative aside. Like last year’s Nightcrawler, Sicarion doesn’t offer much food for thought on its subject of critique, but it is positively vivacious as momentary genre cinema. At its core, Sicario is, essentially, the story of a white woman (played with quavering woe and pangs of anxiety by Emily Blunt) being corrupted by a white man (played with deviously cunning laid-back superciliousness by Josh Brolin), who is also doing his best to wrangle a non-white man (played with ruthless sangfroid and all manner of subcutaneous serrated edges by Benicio del Toro) to work for him. Claims of hifalutin metaphorical wizardry might abound, but Sicario doesn’t have much to say about the War on Drugs other than that it is unwinnable, which, you know, Traffic was saying 15 years ago, and any smart leftist was boasting 15 years before that. It is a tale as old as time, and as straightforward as it gets.
Because the film is far more tethered to its exasperatingly near-perfect nuts-and-bolts craft, however, it is still a gas. Craft, mind you, that is may very well use for exploitation, placing the political gambles at play in the War on Drugs into the sausage grinder and coming out the other end with pulverizingly gorgeous thriller craft that unfolds like a walking panic attack ablaze with pangs of discomfort that take on cosmic proportions. The film doesn’t play around with its un-grounded ambitions either. Characters are underdeveloped because they are meant to function as spaces on the ground rather than characters (not unlike this decade’s The Raid, actually, even if Sicario boasts more airs). Johann Johannsson’s score is a corrosive death wish of industrial moans and otherworldly wails. We aren’t watching a realist tale of “on the ground” cinéma vérité docudrama aspirations. This is not a dissection of the War on Drugs. It is a peer into a portal of the unknown where a handful of characters have entered, a Twilight Zone that nominally occupies the US-Mexican border. What maters with Sicario is not that it has anything interesting to say about the War on Drugs, but that it takes what has been said before and shows it to us with volcanically perfect visual and aural craft.
Roger Deakins, matching Mad Max: Fury Road for the best cinematography of the year thus far, is the film’s ace in the hole, galvanizing every shot in a thick, muscular, swampish blanket of subfuscous dislocation. Watching the film’s signature sequence, a descent into a perilous tunnel where a shootout slowly slithers about, we aren’t watching a tunnel, but a cosmic nether realm, a void of nothingness. The sequence is primarily filtered through thermal vision taken from Predator and noirified by stripping any semblance of refreshing or warm color; we are literally watching human beings abstracted through military technology. Ostensibly, this is so the soldiers can see better, but it serves another purpose: to derive them of their humanity, to transmute them into mechanical objects, a collage of shapes and grays with the general visage of humanity but none of the details filled in. Even strapped of social commentary, the sheer distancing effect of watching grey shapes shooting and falling over is chilling, primal experiential cinema.
That is merely in the tunnel though. The surrounding environs are a cocktail of disparagement and sinister intentions, all filtered through Malickian imagery of the desert-soaked Southwest that envisions the land not as tactile reality but as a landscape of the mind. From Blunt’s perspective – she’s a rookie in this sort of fight, despite her years working house invasions in Arizona – she really is entering hell, and Deakins shoots the scene, as with many of the film’s scenes like John Ford and his cinematographers lensed Monument Valley: as an unknowable, implacable object where time and space seem to fold in on each other. The landscape, elemental and unearthly, seems to sit and watch as the pesky humans play their games. It doesn’t care one bit about us.
Which is a moral quandary for us, the audience, especially with material hitting so close to home. Sicario, in “pure cinema” sequences like these, is a cataclysmic meeting of minds (Taylor Sheridan’s script is useless as far as social insight goes, but it is perfectly stripped and cut down to the bone as a line that Villeneuve, Deakins, and all involved can latch on to). As “pure cinema” – which is to say, as a parade of images and sounds that exist without any social context, but which simply travel into your soul and stab you over and over until you bleed out from the effect of the film – Sicario is special filmmaking, no doubt about it. It is also, and this is unequivocal here folks, playing with fire by setting all of this in the ostensible War on Drugs. It has no interest whatsoever in the Mexican lives lost to the crisis, for one, but then, that is part and parcel with the film’s undeniable, and possibly unenviable, brilliance as a pure thriller.
For comparison, see last year’s Nightcrawler, a work of ghoulish graveyard genius as a grindhouse flick doctored up in artistic sublimity. Sicario is much the same. When Nightcrawler even hinted at criticizing the media for their cutthroat news policy, it floundered and flopped around on deaf ears, and Sicario does too whenever it pines for “message movie status”. Both films are impeccable, even transformative explorations of a world just out of view of everyday life. But those worlds are incidental to the world they exist in. They might as well be alien artifacts concerning conflicts from eons away; they are failures as social insight jutting oddly into successes of pure experience.
Thus, Sicario may flounder morally as well; it may be a War on Drugs exploitation film. Yet that does not take away from the moments where we feel the forlorn corpse of death around our necks, or where we find ourselves lost in abject terror, doing anything in our path to sidewind the loss around us. Both films, essentially, succeed because they only occasionally place the hammer on the head. They generally feel more comfortable with the knife in the stomach, or a simple box with no windows we as the audience are left in to die. Sicario is the classical Western transported to the modern age: humans on the outskirts of society, breathing their last gasps, engulfed by the wide expanse of nothingness surrounding them, and fighting to forget that they have nothing to fight for. Yet it is at its best when it feels less like “the modern age” and more primordial, more abstract, and more like a dark, dank crawl into the hole of your own doom. If Sicario can muster no thoughts about the War on Drugs, that is because it is busy fighting off the noose around its neck, busy huffing and breathing and crawling and looking over its shoulder in the night. It doesn’t say much, but it feels everything.