“Sicario” is a masterpiece of the inevitable, of the unavoidable, of the moment you know you’re leading to your entire life and dread facing, because you know you’ll be less coming away from it. And yet everyone involved must, because they are who they are.
The architecture of this is brilliant:
The visuals frame the dust hanging in the midday sun, the evening clouds, the ground underneath your feet, all as unfeeling and silent witnesses to what takes place before them. The textures of these interstitial moments are felt and given room to breathe even as the action takes place before them. It makes the story smaller, and in feeling smaller it becomes more personal. This is no epic. This is the ruination of a week in front of our eyes.
Lives are cast asunder. The music sometimes hunts you. You can hear it lurking around the bend. Voices yearn at something beautiful. The strings plunge deeper than you thought they could. The horns fret and cackle amongst themselves. The music is a vulture. The music is the sand, shifting yet immutable. The music is your thirst, some nostalgia for an ideal of a world that requires your willing ignorance to believe in. There’s a string you can cling to, high and disappearing.
We live our lives discovering who we are and why we are that way, of learning ourselves better than we did the day or week or month before. Of putting one foot in front of the other. Our hearts will break and heal, and break and heal, but they are rarely stolen out from our chests in ways that force us to relinquish our Who and our Why. “Sicario” takes that away. “Sicario” plunges a hand into one woman’s chest over the course of a film and takes away who she is, why she is.
“Sicario” is the husking of people, in a broad sense through the political games of the Drug War, and in a specific sense in the decimation of how one woman’s shaped herself over the course of her lifetime.
“Sicario” is conscious of this, and so it gives you breaks to breathe. Yet the horror is in the breathing, in those moments in between. It is a film of anticipations, of hearing the hunt around the bend. You look around and you see the dust in the air, the clouds in the sky, the ground beneath your feet. It makes your story smaller, it makes it more personal. It makes you wish you didn’t have that chance to breathe and recognize these things.
“Sicario” is a vulture. It picks the bones of people clean. It takes the best of us and shows her to be useless in the face of an unfeeling system that has its own agenda. It is a masterpiece of meeting your fate, and having no self left into which you can recede.
A pulsing, foreboding sense of threat. A festering thought you can’t quite pin down, that you know will come back to bite you. Realizations of something sickening and bad you’ve gotten yourself into. “Sicario” is all these things and more. It’s a rare thriller of powerful patience and primal rhythm. It will hook you and keep you strung out so far along its line that you’ll never see where you’re being taken until it’s too late.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a SWAT team for the FBI. After her team suffers losses due to an IED planted in an Arizona home, she’s recruited by an adviser to the Department of Justice. They’re going after the leader of one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels. It becomes quickly apparent that she can’t trust this adviser, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Is he CIA? Something else? How legal is their operation? Why is she along when her only purpose seems to be getting babysat? Incursions into Mexico, highway firefights, desperate struggles, and hidden politics throw Kate back and forth as she grows increasingly suspicious of the mission for which she’s volunteered.
You will feel terrible for Kate. She’s risking her life for something idealistic and she’s pulled from that into doing something that only contributes to elongating the cycle of violence she’s trying to stop. She’s a warrior fighting for her ideals in a war that never had any to start. She becomes a victim of what’s expedient, what pushes the problem down the line for someone else.
“Sicario” is a vicious movie. It’s not overly gritty. It’s very distanced and removed at points, making you care for Kate by holding you back from her. This only adds to the film’s viciousness. There’s little release, and yet there’s a primal energy pulsing through it all. Director Denis Villeneuve (“Prisoners”) is a master of the slow burn, of waiting for the other shoe to drop. He utilizes exacting yet heartfelt detail in every scene. How light plays off Kate’s face, the rhythms of editing, when to cut to an actor’s tic all contribute to shaping for us the worlds of other people’s lives.
Here, he’s created something ugly and threatening, yet there’s so much attention to the details and texture of each moment. There’s the contrast of the looming clouds. There’s the sand as colored by the light of the morning. Even different forms of night vision are used at one point to evoke something otherworldly, as if descending into Hell itself. There are beautiful moments even amid such viciousness. The characters don’t notice, but it’s impossible as a viewer to avoid them. Minor details embrace the feeling of the moment in contrast to the over-arching, cold, dispassionate reality of it.
Then there’s Emily Blunt. She is remarkable. This is performance-of-the-year territory. She will break your heart not because she tries, but because she tries so hard not to.
The entire ensemble follows suit. Brolin is grimy, hard to pin down, some evolved form of the most easygoing yet manipulative characters he’s played. Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro, who – well, you’re not really meant to be sure who he is. Daniel Kaluuya is Kate’s SWAT partner Reggie, loyal to a fault. Theirs is a compelling and very real friendship.
The musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes incredible tension. It plays its most intense moments as muted, far off. It’s like hearing a hunting party beyond a hill, or relentless drums around the bend, their reverberation growing louder than the sound itself, sudden silences creating more anticipation than relief.
This is a film that plants itself in your head and simmers there. It gives you consequences and then lurks. “No Country for Old Men.” “Zero Dark Thirty.” “Traffic.” The list of films that resemble “Sicario” is a list of tonal high points in cinema, and yet none of them fully captures quite what “Sicario” is. If there’s a movie it reminds me of most, it’s “Silence of the Lambs.” It’s patient in closing its trap. It presents the treatment of a sole woman amid a group of men in particular and subtle ways. Nothing’s ever said out loud, but a moment of derision, being made to feel extraneous to the moment, and certain visual cues all combine to make a point of her treatment.
In its own way, “Sicario” would fit right into gothic horror. It’s trappings are as far away from the genre as you could get – sand, cigarettes, and assault rifles. Yet at the same time, the madness of how our drug war has evolved, fighting the very monsters we propagate – there’s nothing more gothic in theme.
That’s where “Sicario” gets you. It’s not the threat to Kate’s life that is most compelling. It’s the threat to the idea that Kate’s life matters. The notion that it doesn’t, that what she does with it, that what truth she chooses to hold is inconsequential…that’s why “Sicario” is such a vicious thing. These are ideas that can be vicious without ever making themselves apparent. They just wear you down. And “Sicario” presents this masterfully. It is easily in the conversation for Film of the Year.
Does it Pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?
This section uses the Bechdel-Wallace Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film.
1. Does “Sicario” have more than one woman in it?
Not really. Kate is played by Emily Blunt. There are two other women who feature in moments, but neither speaks a line.
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. About something other than a man?
My own read on “Sicario” is that this is very purposeful, but mine is not the only read, so take it with a grain of salt. I compare it to “Silence of the Lambs” in the way that the film purposefully isolates a woman amid men, yet even “Silence of the Lambs” manages to pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test.
Emily Blunt easily owns more screen time than any other character. She is, essentially, the only main character. “Sicario” feels like a Greek hero myth gone terribly wrong. Her being one of a kind, an outsider in another world, is the entire point. In some of the same ways “Silence of the Lambs” visually laid into the treatment of a professional woman in a field of men, “Sicario” uses specific actions to isolate Kate amid the men with whom she works. It’s not always comfortable. In fact, “Silence of the Lambs” is a bit of an upper compared to “Sicario.” Kate’s partner, Reggie, is the only black character. That’s no mistake either.
Normally, I’d criticize a film for making decisions to isolate women or black characters in such a way without stating a clear message as to why, yet “Sicario” is undeniably aware of these two characters, making a point of their treatment without ever saying it aloud. The isolation itself is a commentary. The violence other characters are willing to let Kate suffer is a commentary. “Sicario” reveals itself to be angry about very specific things later on, but to describe them would enter spoiler territory.
Kate and Reggie are, essentially, our only two good characters, the only ones who stay true and heroic. Kate dominates the story. Sometimes she is tough. Sometimes she comes out on the losing end anyway. This is the story of a hero meeting something that can’t be beaten, not because of her shortcomings but because of everyone else’s. If she can’t beat it, no one can. She’s a role model and a hero, but she’s also alone.
Again, take this with a grain of salt. I am a man. It would not be the first time I let a film off more lightly in this section than I should. With certain films, it can be difficult to balance my reading of it against its feminist qualities. If I always knew which films those were, then it wouldn’t be so difficult. I come with my own subjective limitations, though I do my best. This section is never meant to present me as an expert in feminism. It’s meant to do something that critics should be doing more often, but aren’t. It’s meant to provide a place to discuss these things, not decide them altogether.
I feel “Sicario” uses Kate’s isolation and the visual language inherent to certain moments of violence directed against her to consciously acknowledge and portray an aspect of the difficulty she faces: as a woman in a field where the men around her dismiss her usefulness. I could be wrong on that point. It could instead use those elements as shortcuts. I may let the bias of how good I feel “Sicario” is influence my reading of those elements.
I left the film considering Kate the kind of hero who would make it far as the protagonist in 1970s cinema, as a beset outsider trying to ferret out a truth. Others may feel differently about her treatment and they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong.
That may or may not be helpful, but something that critics need to do more often and something that men in particular need to be open to doing is admitting when we just don’t know something, even in our field. When some aspect of a particular film lies outside my realm of knowledge or expertise, I will tell you how I feel, what my inclinations are, but the most honest thing I can couch that in is, “I don’t know.”
“Sicario” is challenging. It will be a film I think about and pick apart for a long time. I may write about more realizations down the road. As of this moment, whether it’s feminist or not – the best answer I can give is: I think so, but in such particular, subtle, and experiential ways that I might be misreading it. If those ways translate through the experiences of a woman, then as a man, I’m not the best qualified to assess them. Sometimes that happens. As a critic, it’s not my job to give you my best guess when an aspect of a film reaches outside my realm. It’s my job to recognize what’s in and out of my realm, to give you my best guess knowing that, and to be clear to you about what qualifications I both possess and lack in making that assessment. “Sicario” reaches outside my realm in certain ways, and it drives me to understand those ways better.
Where did we get our amazing images? The last shot of Emily Blunt, in the car, is from The Film Stage’s article 8 Films to Watch Before Sicario. They have some very good recommendations. The feature and top images are from Fox Force Five News’ review of “Sicario.”
The only reason Liam Neeson still has an action career is because no one’s employed Tommy Lee Jones to chase him down yet. You could run a day-long marathon of films featuring Jones chasing down fugitives from the law: The Fugitive, sequel U.S. Marshals, two Men in Black movies, The Hunted, The Missing, No Country for Old Men, and In the Valley of Elah.
What’s most impressive about that list is that all these movies are good to great, and you can see Jones becoming a more dynamic and human actor as he ages (In the Valley of Elah may be his finest single performance).
The plot of The Hunted is fairly basic – Benicio Del Toro plays Hallam, a special forces operative convinced that the government is trying to kill him for what he knows about secret operations. He hides out in the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest and begins murdering anyone who comes near, including a pair of hunters. This brings the FBI in, who realize they’re outmatched and recruit the man who trained Hallam (Jones’s Bonham) to help track him down.
The Hunted is the least of Jones’s tracker films, still worth watching but surprising in its traditional structure since it comes from director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, Sorceror). Yet it’s also the movie where Jones finally got to throw down in extended fight scenes and take on his fugitive one-on-one. The knife fight above is absolutely brutal, and one of the better ones ever put to film.
This training sequence from earlier in the film helps describe the kind of fight choreography we’ll see later on. It provides emotional background on Hallam, but also acts as a primer to make sure we’ll keep up with what each fighter’s trying to do in the later fight:
The climactic fight does have its weak points, though. As you watch Jones tumble down a waterfall, you’ll realize just how far visual effects have come in 12 years. In terms of the choreography, filmmaking in the 1990s and early 2000s demanded egregious pauses in combat for reaction shots, as well as close-ups of hits and misses. Action films since then, in great part due to the success of The Bourne trilogy, have shifted further toward uninterrupted combat in the service of reality. Since we’ve also drifted away from having reliable action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, reaction shots and close-ups have evaporated and audiences are trusted to keep up without these breaks.
Additionally, where exertion used to be stressed in our violence, we now focus on the mechanical aspects of it, often to the exclusion of emotion. Neither of these portrayals is particularly accurate, and the idea that there’s a best “type” of fighter or a superior “attitude” to possess is a gross oversimplification.
These shifts in the tone of our fight scenes reflect more what’s popular in the portrayal of action; they reflect changing tastes in filmmaking. Fight sequences that feel more realistic aren’t always actually more realistic. Just as pausing in combat demanded sacrifice in the mechanics of the action 12 years ago, a purely mechanical scene demands sacrifices in the thought and emotion that takes place in a real fight. It’s important to remember that each approach sacrifices an aspect of reality when we discuss fight choreography and how action scenes are filmed.