“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.”
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For would be a lot better if it didn’t seem like a Men’s Rights recruitment ad. Every woman in the film is either manipulating a man, getting beaten, or pining for a man who couldn’t care less about her. Often all three at once.
I’m a big fan of the noir that Sin City 2 is riffing, but for all its slick prose and stylish affectations, I don’t think co-directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez have watched much of the genre lately. The film, like predecessor Sin City nine years ago, is based on the graphic novels by Miller (who also originated the 300 franchise). It poses a dirty, corrupt city where everyone’s a criminal – especially the cops and politicians. Gangsters and thugs aren’t any better, except for the five minutes in their lives when a petite blonde reminds them to be.
Visually, Sin City 2 is stunning…for the first 20 minutes. It’s black-and-white with thick shadows the way you’d find in a graphic novel, but with highlights of color – a woman’s bright blue dress, or blonde hair, or the red of a police car’s flashing lights. After the first few sequences, however, the visuals become predictable, surprisingly spare, and even repetitive.
We follow a few short stories, each one breaking for another and promising to return later. The first Sin City pulled this off successfully because it relied on Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis, and Clive Owen to lead tragic vignettes. Those three can each squint and growl their way through a dozen noirs before breakfast. This second entry follows Rourke (The Wrestler), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper), Josh Brolin, and Jessica Alba (Fantastic Four).
Parts of Sin City 2 boast a strong narrative. These involve Rourke’s stone wall of a bouncer Marv and Gordon-Levitt’s cardsharp with daddy issues, Johnny. Both actors have a mastery for the kind of curt, metaphor-rich language the film asks them to recite. Even Alba, as stripper-out-for-vengeance Nancy, has hugely improved her control of noir dialogue from the first film.
The weak spot is Brolin (W.), who is actually playing the same character Clive Owen (Children of Men) did in the first Sin City. Brolin is many things, but a rebellious Welshman isn’t one of them. He can’t hack the noir language and his version of Owen’s sneering growl is to stare blankly ahead and mumble. He underplays the central role when everyone else is overacting their pants off. Literally. No one keeps their pants on for longer than 10 minutes in this movie.
Eva Green plays the manipulative Ava. As she’s shown in 300: Rise of an Empire and Dark Shadows, she’s the industry standard for deliciously overplaying villains in otherwise unwatchable movies. It’s strange that, instead of using her talents, the film grinds to a halt for 20 minutes of creepily voyeuristic worship of Green. I get it, she’s attractive. She’s also won a British Academy Award. Maybe the film can move on to, say, some acting?
Brolin and Green’s story is the most central and longest in the film. Unfortunately, it’s a complete mess, and it makes the much better stories surrounding it begin to try your patience. That’s never a good sign for a film only a few minutes over an hour-and-a-half. Rourke, Gordon-Levitt, and Alba gamely try to save things, but even their powers combined can only lift the movie from disastrous to bothersome.
What’s most frustrating is that noir movies were the place where women first exerted their power on film. Actresses like Ida Lupino in the 1940s began playing villains and strong femme fatales. While these characters manipulated others, they did so with their intelligence and wit, not by bedding every other character. They were dangerous because they were capable. The women in Sin City 2 aren’t capable. They’re posed as either powerless or deceitful – not because of their intelligence, mind you, but because the movie would have you believe that’s what women are underneath.
The film’s a cinematic, storytelling, and performance mess even before we get to the social commentary, but its backwards views on women are much more important to call out. In a summer where every action movie – even last week’s 1980s throwback The Expendables 3 – has balanced old-fashioned perspectives and style with increased inclusion of female heroes, ethnically diverse casts, and even disabled protagonists, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For feels unneeded, ill-advised, and a little bit sickening.
It’s rated R for violence, sexual content, nudity, and drug use, but it still manages to be boring.