Sicario (2015) Review: Cops And Cartels
Television will often portray officers and detectives as the ideal of law enforcement. Aside from more recent shows like ‘The Wire’ and ‘Chicago P.D’, cops for decades were presented as good-natured men and women in trench-coats, intimately involved with the cases that come to their desk that get solved at the end of each episode. But whereas the corrupt cop is the exception in the land of tv, film takes the opposite approach.
Dirty Harry looks for the excuse to pull his gun, Alonzo Harris runs drugs in L.A, and most recently, the feds in ‘Black Mass’ were actively involved in the goings on of a criminal organization! It’s safe to say that when it comes to law enforcement in film, you can expect a few morally questionable individuals to be in the mix. Of course, that’s what makes them so good. You take what is supposed to be an institution for the protection of the people and you perverse it. The trouble is if every representation of a thing is similarly contrary, how the hell do you stand out?
‘Sicario’ delves into the same idea of ethical boundaries, with a pragmatic touch. The film follows the story of Emily Blunt’s, ‘Kate Macer’. Kate is a field operative working with SWAT to bring down drug houses owned by Mexican cartels but located in the United States. Kate is operating under the insanity doctrine of policing, doing the same thing over and over without a varied result. When she has an opportunity to do something that has a meaningful effect on the drug trade, she jumps at the chance. However, the road it takes her on tests her physically, emotionally and psychologically, as she’s pushed to her very limits.
With a description like that, I should let you know that there are some movies you can eat popcorn to, and ‘Sicario’ is not one of them. Meaning, ‘Sicario’ doesn’t just push its main characters to the limit, it takes the audience there as well. Much like his 2013 thriller ‘Prisoners’, director Dennis Villeneuve excels at crafting scenes that make you…uncomfortable as you watch them. You won’t have time to reel back from whatever moral quandaries the movie posits to you because you’ll be preoccupied with adjusting your mental state for the gut-wrenching display before you.
As the movie goes along it starts out as ‘Training Day’ goes to Mexico, as Kate is very much the Ethan Hawke of this film. She’s completely out of her element but knows that she won’t accomplish anything meaningful at the level she’s at. Of course, every ‘Training Day’ needs its Denzel, and that honour is shared between Josh Brolin’s ‘Matt’ and Benicio Del Toro’s ‘Alejandro’. They both represent a warning of sorts to Kate, as examples of what this line of work makes you become.
You have Matt who has become so apathetic that he shows up to a suit and tie meeting in board shorts and flip-flops. He’s a man who resigns any sort of hope for peace and settles for a controlled chaos, with a wry smile. Alejandro is far less smiley. He’s presented as someone who’s had experience with the criminal element they face and has come out the other side changed for the worse.
Every character in this film has an acting powerhouse behind it and the talent isn’t wasted. The characters feel as though they’re fleshed out and that’s in equal part due to the work put in by the cast, and the script. As they’re placed in difficult situations, it’s immeasurably valuable to have the appropriate reactions to those situations. This is not to say how the reasonable man would react, but how those particular characters would handle the situation.
Aside from the main cast, I was particularly impressed with Daniel Kaluuya as ‘Reggie’. He plays Kate’s “green” partner of 18 months, and elevates his character from being the token youthful, idealistic, “This is wrong” mouthpiece, to a meaningful component of the film’s message. Ultimately the cast and the dialogue move this film to be a movie that takes a gritty look at the drug trade, rather than a glorified after-school special about why drugs are bad.
One thing to note is that the movie starts out very slowly and only picks up the pace about a 1/3 ways into the second act. However, I’m beginning to think that’s intentional as I write this review. Bear with me for a second, but, Kate is a field officer that thinks her work doesn’t really lead anywhere meaningful, so, she takes the opportunity for work that is. Then as the movie gets to that point, it amps up considerably. A lot of the first act is set up and waiting, much like a field assignment would be.
It’s unlikely, but perhaps the pacing of the film is deliberate, to place the viewer in Kate’s mindset. Hungry for something a bit meatier that we know is there. Then of course, as Kate experiences things that makes her regret that earlier decision, so does the audience, because just as the unsettling moments occur suddenly for the character, so too would it be for the audience. Then again I might be reading into things like Jake Gyllenhaal’s cut up face in Southpaw
Another thing I noticed was how much the movie likes to play with absences. Absence of light and sound specifically (what else is there). See, the movie likes to put certain characters in darkness to enhance the symbolism of the scene. More than that though, it takes characters that have a glimmer of hope in them and represents that with, well, a glimmer of light. There’s another scene in which a nighttime mission is about to take place, and the camera stays on a shot of the sunset over a densely dark desert. You watch as each and every soldier disappears into the black and the tension of the scene amps up as they do so, simply because you know what to expect by this point in the film.
Silence though does nothing but aggravate that tension. There is a score, which is appropriately brutal, but it’s used sparingly. The most intense scenes are the ones that have a score of sounds. Sounds of vroom, blam, brap, and boom fill the scenes. This helps sell the reality the film wants established, as you share the atmosphere of noise the characters inhabit.
‘Sicario’ is a deeply disturbing film about whether the end really does justify the means. A movie about the harsh reality that comes along with dealing with the worst crimes of the modern day. Its protagonists are just as vile as the people they’re trying to prosecute and sad to say the system it presents feels true to life rather than heightened fiction. I can’t say I’ll watch ‘Sicario’ again for a while simply because it’s not built for rewatchability. However, I’m glad I got to see it, because I like when a movie’s thought-provoking, making me shift in my seat.
Rating = Big Screen Watch