Sunday, October 2, 2016

Light And Dark Fight The Drug War In Sicario.

The Good: Performances, Pacing, Direction
The Bad: Very basic story, Lighter on character motivations than some
The Basics: Sicario is tense and clever, even if it is comparatively simple for the two stories it attempts to tell.

With how many films are released each year, it is unsurprising that there are some films I just do not get around to seeing when they are released - regardless of my intent to watch them. Last year, one of the few films to slip between the cracks that I actually wanted to see (the same cannot be said of all of the Best Picture nominees that I had to watch!) was Sicario. I knew almost nothing about Sicario, save that it had an amazing cast (Victor Garber can get me to watch just about anything!) and that the film was a crime drama centered around the drug trade.

As Sicario starts to ramp up, there is a sense that the film might simply become a rehash of Traffic (reviewed here!). Smartly, Sicario keeps the scope much tighter; it is a film where various law enforcement agents and agencies work together to smoke out the boss of a major drug kingpin. So, while there is a feeling that the film is sweeping in scope because it travels around and involves large groups of people working together, the plot is remarkably simple.

Opening in Chandler, Arizona, an FBI SWAT Team led by Kate Mercer raids a cartel house looking for hostages and, when she is shot at, it opens a hole in the wall, which reveals corpses stored there. Forty-two bodies are discovered inside the house before an agent inadvertently sets off a bomb, killing two agents. Mercer connects the house to Manuel Diaz, a major cartel leader working within the United States. Following the incident, Mercer is recruited by the Department Of Justice to join a team to get to Diaz and the cartel for which he works. The first operation she is a part of has Mercer feeling very much left out of the loop and questioning the legality of the mission as it crosses the border from El Paso, Texas to Juarez, Mexico. The mission is an extraction, an extradition that Mercer is wary of and witnesses (from a distance) the violent reaction on the streets of Juarez to.

Guillermo, the man extracted, reveals the existence of a secret tunnel between the U.S. and Mexico. Mercer, Graver, Alejandro, and Mercer's partner Reggie, bust one of Manuel Diaz's money launderers, which leaves Mercer jaded because (while exposing Diaz's methods, there is not strong, legal, evidence of a crime committed) the task force will not act upon it; they continue to focus on flushing out Diaz's superior in the cartel. Disillusioned, Mercer and Reggie go out to a bar, where Mercer hooks up with Ted . . . only to discover that he is one of Diaz's men in law enforcement in the U.S. Alejandro uses Ted as an opportunity to clean house of the corrupt police officers. When Diaz is recalled, Mercer learns that she has been used as legal cover for the CIA (which cannot operate on U.S. soil without another agency with legal authority attached to the operation), but she soldiers on, determined to find out how far back she was a pawn for Graver.

While Sicario is instantly graphic and intense, the impressive aspect of the film is its attention to detail. While Mercer is being recruited to the elite team, she is asked about having a husband and children. While it is easy to view the scene - which contains a group of white men sitting in judgment of Mercer - as something sexist or invasive, director Denis Villeneuve and actor Josh Brolin (who plays Graver, the interrogator) find just the right balance to make those who are familiar with crime dramas recognize it as a risk assessment inquiry. Sicario executes a number of the details like that incredibly well.

Emily Blunt is just the right performer to play Mercer. While she is established right away in the film as badass and efficient, Mercer gets into a situation where she is dramatically over her head. Blunt is able to make the audience empathize immediately with Mercer by playing the fish out of water. Blunt, like the audience, is along for the ride on the first big mission, but the way Blunt uses her facial expressions makes the viewer believe they have a kindred spirit. It is the way Blunt keeps her eyes constantly scanning that lends credibility to Mercer; she is aware of consequences and law that most of the audience is not. It is not easy to portray internal conflict on screen, but Blunt makes it look effortless and instantly gets the viewer to invest in Kate Mercer.

In a similar fashion, Victor Garber's very minimal role in Sicario belays a much more hefty character. Garber's role of Jennings from the Department Of Justice, might seem to exist in Sicario to both recruit Mercer and provide a legal justification for the operations that follow, but Garber plays Jennings with a quiet intelligence that lends authority to the supporting part. Benecio Del Toro might have a more substantive role in Sicario, but Garber steals the scenes he is in.

It is hard to pull off a film where the protagonist is, ostensibly, a dupe, but Sicario manages to do almost all it sets out to very well. Mercer is surrounded by people who are used to keeping secrets, so there are a number of moments of pure exposition needed to inform the viewer what is actually going on. Instead of using cheesy voiceovers or inorganic monologues, Sicario immerses the viewer in the situation and then explains and justifies as needed. Fortunately, Mercer is frequently asking "what the hell is going on" so the viewer is able to watch Sicario and feel like they are going exactly at pace with someone who appears vastly more knowledgeable in the situation.

Sicario is essentially a pair of character studies of Mercer and Alejandro. Mercer is an incredibly straightforward character with a clear moral core and series of goals. Alejandro, by contrast, is a mysterious character and watching his story unfold is much of the meat of Sicario. Despite Alejandro's motivation being handed to the viewer by Graver, the last half of the film makes him a compelling character who makes the latter half of Sicario gripping. Benicio Del Toro is well-cast as Alejandro, though he plays the quiet, mysterious role in the first half in a way that telegraphs his potentially ruthless abilities.

Like Traffic, Sicario makes a moral case alongside decidedly immoral actions. There is the obligatory acknowledgement that the war on drugs is an abject failure and that a significant problem with fighting against the illegal drug trade is that demand for the product exists in the United States. But the meat of Sicario is the interplay between Mercer and Alejandro and while it is slow in getting there, the payoff is generally satisfying.

The result is a crime drama that is engaging to watch and smartly explores the complexity of a fight that has created as many monsters as it has eliminated.

For other works with Emily Blunt, please visit my reviews of:
Edge Of Tomorrow
The Five-Year Engagement
The Adjustment Bureau
Salmon Fishing In The Yemen
Charlie Wilson’s War
Dan In Real Life
The Devil Wears Prada


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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