About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Film Review: Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario" (2015) 3/5

     Sicario, on the surface, is about an FBI operative named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who is assigned to work with the Department of Defense to aid in finding the cartel leader responsible for a series of atrocities along the border.  However, Sicario is a film all about what's under the surface – or at least it wants to be.  People are never who they claim they are, places have dual functions, and morality is less a reality than it is a fantasy.  All of those elements are staples of the political crime/thriller genre, and yet in the context of this film they feel like paper-thin genre constructs that are forced into the film rather than catered to the script.  
     Using a fictional premise to examine a very real problem with cartels and the ways in which cartels are dealt with along the United States' border with Mexico, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan manage to create some tense moments but struggle to maintain that tension over the course of the whole film.  Opening in Arizona, Kate Macer and an FBI SWAT team raid a home in a hostage rescue mission.  When they arrive, everything goes as planned but there are no hostages to be found.  It's just an empty house.  However, upon further inspection of a wall that took a hit from a shotgun, there's something wrapped in plastic in the wall that has been exposed.  The natural first impression is that they've uncovered a hidden drug stash, but when the wall is pulled back by Macer and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), it is revealed that cadavers wrapped in plastic are inside the walls of this home.  This is one of the first examples of something being more than what meets the eye.  Upon returning back to headquarters, Kate Macer is assigned to join the cocky and ever-charming Department of Defense adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to investigate the cartel's actions in El Paso.  A cloud of impenetrable secrecy hovers over this assignment, and it is not until Macer boards the plane to El Paso that she discovers from Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) that they'll be crossing the Mexican border.  At this moment, she begins to realize that she is stepping into a situation that goes far deeper than she initially anticipated.
     Depicted in arial shots looking down at the Texas terrain, her flight to El Paso gains a scenic quality as the landscape and scale of the territory that the bulk of the film takes place around is put on display.  Once in El Paso, the plan to transport a cartel leader (who is being held captive in Juarez, Mexico) over the border to be interrogated is hashed out.  There's a hesitation on Kate Macer's part to be involved with this assignment, but she complies with her orders and joins Alejandro and Matt in an SUV caravan.  Similar to the arial shots of traffic in Tokyo in Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void (2009), we return to an arial shot that provides a God-like view of a caravan of black SUVs as they glide through the US border checkpoints en route to Juarez.  In Sicario, crossing the border into Mexico is established as the easiest part of this mission – coming back alive is the hard part.  As a result of seeing the SUVs enter Mexico from above, it truly does look simple.  From several hundred feet in the air, there is no conflict.  Unfortunately, these arial shots become a visual motif as the film progresses, and many of them are so patient that the film loses its sense of rhythm even as the stakes begin to inch higher.  The distance from the events below in later scenes is a disservice to any suspense that could've been created or maintained.  
     Beyond technicalities, the greatest weakness in this film is its character development.  Unlike the mission and the motives of Matt and Alejandro, which remains a marginal mystery through much of the film, the characters remain predictable and unchanged by the end.  It may be closer to reality that no one goes through a dramatic metamorphosis, but the source of much of the character development issues is that there is too much of an emphasis given to inconsequential characters.  Almost taking on the structure of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000) at times, by the end of the film the only reason Kate Macer remains the protagonist is because it was through her experience that we've seen this story at all.  Alejandro, Kate, Reggie, and Matt all fight for screen time and we hardly get to meet any of them.  Backstory, as told through exposition, becomes our only attachment to these shells of people.  Perhaps the most troubling thread of this film's narrative is a failed attempt to make the audience feel sympathy for a police officer who is also fighting for screen time with our four central characters.  It's established that he has a wife and a son, but it's all a distraction to the plot that ends up slowing things down. Had his time on screen been redistributed to Kate or Alejandro, perhaps we could feel real sympathy for either of them by the film's conclusion.
     In theory, Sicario has a lot of potential to be a suspenseful film with internal and external conflict that is palpable, but much of that is never fully realized.  At times the film gets lost in shots of the Sun setting, knives drawn against the night sky, or arial shots of Mexico – a likely attempt to create an atmosphere of dread that is attached to a geographic location.  What if that atmosphere had been directed toward the characters that the film is about (or the violence enacted by and against those characters)?  Sure, Sicario is not perfect, but when it's working, it's truly exciting and involving – but that's not often enough.

My rating: 3/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3397884/

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