Taking Sides in “Sicario”

Denis Villeneuve’s attempt to stay neutral hurts an otherwise great film.

Sicario, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his deeply disturbing 2013 film Prisoners, is technically perfect. It’s perfectly written, directed, acted, edited, photographed, sound-designed, and scored. And yet the fact that everyone’s job is done identifiably well is kind of a problem. When the credits roll, the film’s technique leaves a greater impression than its story, due in large part to Villeneuve’s misguided attempt to recreate Prisoners’ moral dilemma.

Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an F.B.I. agent with a penchant for following the rules who is elected to join a “voluntary” government task force charged with taking out a key member of the Mexican drug cartels. Other members of this task force include Matt (a delightfully snarky Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose job titles aren’t clear—which is not cool with Kate, who we are repeatedly told likes to do things by the book.

Sicario is a film about the complexities at play in the war on drugs—about law and order versus the Wild West, procedure versus rule bending. And rather than take a stance, Villeneuve seeks to leave the audience with a question. But Matt and Alejandro’s brand of rule-breaking cowboy justice looks fun and sexy, while Kate’s side seems dry and lifeless. (This is no fault of Blunt’s—like everyone else involved, she does her job incredibly well). We are told and shown that rules are important to Kate, but given no discernable reason as to why. The result is the overwhelming feeling that none of this matters. The moral ambiguity that made Prisoners so compelling is replaced in Sicario by a moral directionlessness, which leaves the viewer feeling more apathetic than conflicted. The film would have been far better served had Villeneuve simply committed to taking Matt and Alejandro’s side.

Sicario’s attempt to instead take every side is evident in its secondary storyline, which focuses on Silvio (Maximiliano Hernández), a corrupt cop with a family, but it plays like it belongs in another film. It’s as if somewhere along the line a studio executive asked, “How can we make this more like Traffic?” Silvio’s story is an attempt to add an extra layer of complexity by showing another side of the drug trade. But while it is engaging and well written, it feels disconnected from the rest of the film—a misplaced strand of braided narrative in Sicario’s otherwise straightforward structure.

But Sicario’s strengths dramatically outshine its weaknesses. Villeneuve is a genius at building tension and visually establishing the emotional barriers between his characters, and Blunt and Del Toro deliver two of the year’s best performances. Furthermore, Sicario is visually stunning—the shot of the task force in silhouette against a sunset is just begging to be a dorm poster, and the film contains what may be the only good night-vision sequence in the history of cinema.

But by striving for ambiguity, Villeneuve pulls Sicario’s emotional punches, replacing them with technique and resulting in a film that, while technically brilliant, is unmoving. Where Prisoners was an audience’s film, Sicario is a filmmaker’s film—one that deserves every Oscar except Best Picture. FL

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