I’m not sure what to think of Sicario, and maybe that’s because I identify with the befuddled FBI agent played by Emily Blunt. Blunt’s character, Kate, has been working on trying to bust Mexican drug cartel gangsters who are operating in Arizona, but as the movie begins the atrocity level rises. The violence is getting out of hand. She is recruited to work with a shadowy government operation run by a Matt (Josh Brolin), who offers her the chance to go directly at the leadership of the cartel rather than wasting time on small-timers. As she is whisked off to a raid in Ciudad Juarez, she is introduced to the mysterious Colombian, Alejandro (Benecio del Toro), who works with Matt using methods that are morally questionable.
As a thriller that’s part mystery (in the sense that we don’t understand what Matt and Alejandro are up to), this is a pretty effective film. It looks great, and it moves with great assurance and competence. It reminded me a bit of Zero Dark Thirty in the subject-matter (the moral question of what tactics are allowable when attacking immoral people), the desert locations, and the military-procedural elements. There are several set-pieces that involve tense attacks of heavily armed agents or soldiers on enclosed spaces like houses or tunnels, and these set-pieces are very well handled.
What was less successful for me was Kate’s character and the handling of the moral conundrum of the story. Kate is a largely passive character, who is a kind of stand-in for the audience as she slowly learns what’s really going on. Perhaps she is also intended as a stand-in for an audience that abhors the drug cartels but really have no skin in the game and thus no willingness to do anything about it. As for the moral conundrum, the film is admirably resistant to black-and-white, good-and-bad formulas, but I ended up feeling dissatisfied with how it approached the moral questions. If we are meant to identify with Kate’s passivity and lack of skin in the game, shouldn’t her choices in the end seem more painful? Or shouldn’t that pain be dramatized more concretely? As it is, it feels as though the moral conundrum results in nothing but passive guilt rather than any sense that Emily herself is implicated in the harsh realities. Isn’t that a cop-out?
The other Denis Villeneuve film I’ve seen is Incendies, and looking over my review I see I had a similar problem with that one: the characters who investigate the mystery are basically just passive witnesses who have little impact on the story themselves, just like Kate. That said, Incendies seemed more successful to me dramatically, because the central character of Narwan Marwal embodied the moral conundrums of the story. The cognate character in Sicario is Alejandro, and although he’s a fascinatingly ambivalent figure, he’s very different from Narwan in that his behavior is much, much darker and more cold-blooded than Narwan’s. The climax of his story is also nowhere near as powerful as Narwan’s, perhaps because hers is practically mythological in nature.
I don’t know. I have mixed feelings about Sicario, but I found it riveting as I watched, at least up to the climax, and am still wrestling with it the next day. It definitely strikes a nerve. I’m just not sure whether it channels the resulting pain into a fully effective story.