(Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2015)
Sleek, moody, menacing. The perks of Sicario are entirely visceral. If you want to know what if feels like to be stuck in traffic in Mexico with a shackled drug lord, waiting for the all-but-inevitable attack by his murderous henchmen, watch this film. And that's not the only impressive scene of real-world simulation: there is also a night raid on a drug-smuggling tunnel, more than one briefing of gruff, piratical Army Special Forces types (and menacing, mustachioed Federal Marshals) in which the testosterone and adrenaline practically drips down the walls, and a military raid on a kidnapper's lair (which turns out to be an improvised crypt for cartel victims). The film starts with this ghoulish scenario, in which the bodies have been sealed into the walls. They are packed like insulation between the studs; an odd choice for concealing bodies (wouldn't the smell seep out?), but this is the dark new world of the drug war. Nothing makes any sense.
We follow Emily Mortimer's character, an FBI kidnapping specialist, as she is given an opportunity to take the fight to the principal baddies, rather than mop up their horrific collateral damage. And so we share her bewilderment as she gets a crash course on the multiple layers of corruption that exist on both sides of the border. Villeneuve's strength is in this strategy of sudden, chilly immersion: we are, like Mortimer's character, always playing catch-up, never quite sure who to trust, never sure what lies in store for us. The first half or so of the film uses this to great effect. The action appears well-researched and authentic: the callous swagger of the paramilitary types, the dark cynicism of the intelligence and legal experts, the unfathomable trauma of those who have experienced the savagery first hand.
But at a certain point, the filmmakers feel the need to add some character-based juice to the story, and Mortimer goes from being an audience surrogate to a moral place-holder. The blame rests most squarely on the screenplay, by Taylor Sheridan, which tries to skate by on the strength of its bone-crunching realism. Sheridan sees the drug war, accurately, as a tragedy for all involved, and is conscientiously aware of how widely the blame can be shared. But beyond that, he has nothing to say. Mortimer's protestations about legality and due process come off as extraneous at best. We know from the portentous score and the ominous photography (by the brilliant Roger Deakins) that things are going nowhere but South, literally and metaphorically. Finally, the story is revealed to be one of futility: let the animals on both sides fight it out, there's no room for human conscience in this orgy of evil. Villenueve has very little input as to the ideas, which he takes from the script at face value. Visually, as a director of action and movement in space, he is a formidable talent. But there is nothing more to the film, which inadvertently winds up mirroring the senselessness of the violence generated by the drug war. It ends with an image borrowed from Traffic: a "think of the children" plea that feels both maudlin and lazy. At least in Soderbergh's film, there was a sense of the systemic reach of the rot, and a genuinely humanistic faith in the possibility of people within the system to affect change. In Sicario, the only people who get anything done are the people who have already traded in their souls.