Image Credit to Nerdist
Today, I’m introducing a new series, titled “Catching Up With.” Each entry in “Catching Up With” will allow me to provide an opinion on a movie that is out of theaters, but that I feel like I have something intriguing to say about. The movies I write about can be old or new, American or foreign, popcorn flicks or independent films. For now, I plan to only write about films I’m seeing for the first time, but I might eventually end up including films I’ve seen before in this series. The first entry in this series is about Denis Villenueve’s Sicario. He’s a director I’ve written about before, and as this piece illustrates, I’m not a fan.
The central question of most ambitious filmmakers’ works is whether or not their execution can match their visions. With Denis Villenueve’s work, the central question is if he has a vision to begin with, or if he is trying to pull wool over your eyes. In the cases of Prisoners or Arrival, you had to wait till their endings in which Villenueve used plot twists to try to give closure to conflicts regarding religion and alienation that were both underdeveloped and distracting from the film’s weightier issues before realizing how small and hollow his goals are. With Sicario, his 2015 film about the drug’s war effects on US law enforcement and Mexico, it takes roughly five minutes to realize how lazy and unserious the picture is.
Our protagonist in charge of leading FBI kidnapping response units, Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) has just discovered a bunch of bodies stuffed into the walls of the house she has raided. One of her team’s members walks up to her, informs her that he has the head of the FBI on the phone, and then asks her what he should tell them. Kate says “the truth.” It’s a sweet response bolstered by the fact that Villenueve presents the exchange in a wide shot that shows Kate delivering the answer with little hesitation, thus capturing how innate her proclivity towards honesty is. But the problem is that the exchange makes zero sense. Neither Kate nor her team have done anything illegal or immoral during her search and there’s no context that suggests that either are familiar with having to lie about their missions, so why would she feel compelled to direct the man under her command away from dishonesty? Since the dialogue, then, speaks to a moral quandary that does not exist in the film at the moment it is uttered, it becomes clear that it must speak to a moral problem that develops later in the film, which is exactly what it does and exactly why it is such lazy writing.
The moral conflict foreshadowed by the dialogue is the one that arises in Kate once she is teamed with other US governmental agents to track down the men responsible for the bodies she discovered, men who are violent and murderous drug dealers. Kate must choose between lying to cover up the manipulative, torturous, and harmful methods used by US governmental agencies to track down these men or telling the truth to reveal the injustices her countrymen are partaking in with the probable effect being that the unjust drug dealers get off scot-free. As with Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, then, Sicario wishes to evoke horror at the way that Americans can turn into monsters while chasing monsters. But again, the film seems uninterested in doing the work necessary to achieve this evocation.
The most obvious and painful symptom of the laziness that infects the film is Kate herself. She is one of the most unbelievably naïve characters in recent film history. An FBI employee who expresses alarming levels of shock anytime a rule is broken or a horrible deed is committed, Kate seems to have gone her entire life without hearing about the controversies that have gripped recent American history regarding the drug war, torture, and this nation’s foreign policy quagmires. She is a government agent who has no opinion on what is permissible for the US to do in order to catch its enemies because she has never heard or considered the idea that the US would go outside the law to achieve its aims in the first place. She is a blank slate in regards to this matter, which makes her a far easier and less impactful character conduit to reveal the horrors of US law enforcement and foreign policy tactics than someone who truly believes in those tactics, agonizingly defends them, and then must face the brutality and mixed results of those actions, like Maya in Zero Dark Thirty or Chris Kyle in American Sniper.
However, Kate’s characterization is not the only proof of Sicario’s sloppiness and its dulling effects; sadly, the performance Emily Blunt gives as Kate is equally as frustrating and distancing. Blunt is a fine actress, but here, she too often comes off like she’s trying to embody the emotional state of her character rather than just embodying it. The result is that she always conveys an emotion that is like the emotion she wants to convey, but not the emotion itself. For example, in scenes in which she wants to appear scared, she comes off as confused. In scenes of paranoia, she seems like she needs to take cold medicine. And in scenes where she needs to show her character deep in thought, she shows Kate performing as though she is being watched. When mixed with the way Kate is conceived as a character, then, Blunt’s shoddy work produces a figure who along with her grating naivety never produces the appropriate reaction to any devastating information she uncovers, which means that the internal horror she feels at her growing knowledge becomes even more distant to us than it already is.
The corrosive influence of this distance on Sicario’s quality can be seen and felt in Villenueve’s direction. Villenueve has a general pattern to how he shoots most scenes in the movie, only deviating from it for a few shots a scene, many shots in an action scene, or in the rare scene in which Kate isn’t present. Villenueve shows us some object, event, person, or behavior that Kate is looking at and then shows us Kate reacting to it. This is achieved through shot/reverse-shot, in which POV shots or over-the-shoulder shots reveal Kate’s perspective before cutting to her reaction shots, or by the camera moving. Either way, the experience of watching the film remains the same: we observe what Kate is studying and then study her responses ourselves. In a film with a better developed protagonist and a more precise performance, this pattern of looking through and at a character would’ve worked wonders; the heartbreak and terror Kate feels could’ve been deepened and intensified by seeing something horrific and then seeing the painful way it unravels Kate’s psyche. But because Blunt cannot convey pain and because Kate’s psyche is envisioned in such a limited way, Villenueve’s style never carries emotional weight. Rather, it becomes tedious. In scene after scene, his desire to stick to Kate’s perspective and her turmoil reminds us how empty both are and has the effect of stripping his images, gorgeously composed by Roger Deakins, of life and emotional force.
That is until the last twenty minutes. In the final stages of Villenueve’s work, he abandons his decision to hue closely to seeing Kate and documenting what she sees; instead, opting to follow some other characters, such as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) a secretive and dangerous man who works alongside the US government to achieve his own aims. The result of Villenueve’s shift in style is that Sicario, for the first time, comes alive and gains emotional weight. By coming alive and gaining emotional weight, I mean that the film becomes a hilarious and enraging embarrassment. The anger and comedy of this sequence derive from Villenueve’s filmmaking style, how it makes zero effort to maintain consistency or integrity.
The lack of consistency and integrity is captured best by the sequence in which the film follows Alejandro on a suspenseful action story rather than staying with Kate’s character as she’s finally breaking down in the face of the immorality she is witnessing. Villenueve’s decision here to avoid focusing on the moral crisis he’s been enveloped by throughout the film for a traditional action sequence is a stunning prizing of titillation and artificial suspense over the meaningful moral suspense he has created (or would’ve if Kate’s character was written or performed better); it colors all that has come before the sequence in the film as an insincere and mostly pointless set-up for this one exciting and electric tangent, thus sucking the tension out of the sequence, which is admittedly well-shot, and replacing it with anger and comic bafflement. This anger and comedy is augmented by the film’s final two scenes, one of which restages a resolution to Kate’s moral crisis that we had already seen two sequences prior so that Villenueve can mine tension based on absurd physical threats and the other which spells out the horrific effects of the Drug War on Mexican citizens just in case we couldn’t come to the conclusion ourselves. These scenes are well-crafted, but they feel redundant, patronizing, and as a result, insincere like Alejandro’s action outburst. In turn, they just end up being upsetting and hilarious. Ultimately, then, in Sicario’s final twenty minutes, Villenueve’s direction is revealed to be as lazy as the film’s other elements, but in a different way. If the rest of Sicario represents a kid who didn’t study to pass the test, Villenueve’s direction represents the kid who worked very hard to cheat the test.
Unlike normal Dennis Villenueve pictures, which reveal in the final sections that their seeming ambitions are covers for lazy work, Sicario comes clean early and often. For this, and this alone, it is a welcomed addition to Villenueve’s oeuvre. In every other way, though, it is a disgrace. From the sloppiness of its dialogue, characterization, performance, and direction, Sicario is clearly one of the worst films ever made.