Midway on her life’s journey, a woman finds herself in a dark wood, the right road lost. By no choice of her own, she finds herself in Juarez, a city where even heavily armed women can never safely be, that fresh hell right across the Mexican-American border, of American making. She is there in a vaguely official capacity, defined in conspicuously hazy terms by her two federal agent bosses, both male, who plucked her from suburban law enforcement obscurity to fight a faceless enemy, for reasons that remain willfully unclear. Her mission, simply put, is “to dramatically overreact;” to confront this great darkness, it seems she must be kept in the dark. And so, without her longtime partner, the woman finds herself in Ciudad Juarez, the femicide capital of the modern world, where gunshots serve as silence and dismembered bodies hang from the overpasses, warnings as much as welcome signs: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here.
Such is the beautifully bleak hellscape of Sicario, the fourth feature film from Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director who wears human desolation like a technicolor dream coat. As in his two previous films, Prisoners and Enemy–masterpieces both, with similarly grim color palettes but grandly different scales and pleasures–Sicario is a downward journey into the heart of human darkness, a descent as methodically nihilistic as a slow sink into quicksand; resistance only hastens your subsumption. Imagine if the earthward pan in Blue Velvet continued on past the muck and grime and insects, until subterranean pressure pulverized the camera and heat from the earth’s core melted whatever dust was left: that’s the relentless intensity of Villenueve’s worldview. His camera approaches its subjects warily, dreadfully, but with a lens glimmer of ravenous curiosity, like a vulture nearing prey that might not yet be dead. There is a transcendent precision to his visuals, juxtaposed to the wild, atavistic unraveling of his characters. Suffering is the inescapable reality of his fictions, which is what makes them frighteningly true. Sicario is no exception.
Emily Blunt (The Five-Year Engagement) plays Kate Macer, a conveniently divorced and childless FBI agent who, in the first scene, raids a cartel house to find the walls insulated with corpses, a toolshed that explodes upon entry. Two of her fellow officers are killed in the explosion, atop the literal scores already dead inside the stash house, and Kate is soon recruited by Matt Garver (Josh Brolin, in flip flops) to dramatically bring those responsible to justice. Blunt, owner of perhaps the strangest filmography in the history of leading ladies, may have method trained with icebergs for her performance: her resolve in the face of unspeakable horror seems menacingly unbreakable, until it cracks, shatters, liquifies. It’s an impressively physical, consummately cold performance for an actress so readily capable of graceful charm, and the script fails Blunt, not vice versa–her forehead vein pulses like an overcharged jumper cable for the entire second half of the movie. But the role of Kate remains a thankless task, in service more to the film’s thrust than the inhabitance of a psychology. She is an unaccustomed woman lost in the unfeeling world of men. When Brolin’s character tells her they’re being dispatched to El Paso, she doesn’t realize they’re proceeding on to Juarez until she’s been handed a gun.
It is on this flight to Juarez that we are introduced to Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a whisper-voiced South American whose role appears even less defined than Garver’s. The two dismiss Kate’s concerns through the extraction of the cartel jefe’s brother, his presumed torture, an efficient flurry of deaths and Kate’s near-murder by a turncoat policeman, all while never once betraying their fatalistic rationality about the Drug War. These are men whose handsomeness masks an inner hollow, husks whose pasts require no exposition or elaboration, because their words and actions are those of men whittled down to functions by history, greed, their fellow man. They are the stuffed men, leaning together, headpieces filled with straw, made inhuman by the mercilessness of human nature operating on the macro-est scale. Often, Villeneuve will establish shots from the highest possible altitude, reducing exteriors of the desert to abstracts, composing nonsense images of earth tones, cloud shadows, green bursts of vegetation. Initially, this seems like a stylistic choice. By the end of Sicario, it’s apparent that these exteriors are the only workable maps of these characters’ souls, readable as Rorschach blots. This is what happens to ye who abandon all hope, the films suggests. To abandon all hope is to surrender your very soul.
In Peace Officer, the concurrently released, equally essential documentary about the militarization of SWAT teams in the United States, one of the interviewees, a captain of a police force, states, “Peace is sometimes purchased by violence.” Sicario disproves this fallacious, slippery-sloped argument, demonstrating that violence only purchases a momentary peace, one that collapses into still greater violence. So when Kate Macer is excused from the film’s brutal climax, it’s a justifiable omission, a mercy even. With its director poised to be absorbed into the blockbuster machine (Villeneuve’s next slated film is the Blade Runner remake), Sicario may be more personal than it lets on, a question of one’s willingness to submit to systems that dehumanize as they empower. For Villeneuve, it seems vitally important that this woman found a way out of that dark wood, and came forth then to rebehold the stars.
Final Strawberry Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 Strawberries