By Kyle Huffman.
“Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out of the frame.” This seemingly direct estimation of the art form by legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese defines movies as utilizing first and foremost one sense: the visual. The portrait design of the silver screen traditionally prizes a landscape pattern that stretches the eyes left to right rather than top to bottom. This template for creative expression is, in a lot of ways, an inherently conservative one, as filmmakers (particularly ones practiced in traditional Hollywood style) must grapple with the challenge of solving narrative and aesthetic problems that scores of other films have tried to solve. What hope does one have in creating something truly original in such a harsh environment of precedent? In this way, the cinema screen will remain the unconquerable box that openly invites participants to paint a landscape that audiences have not yet imagined for themselves.
Sicario, the latest crime thriller from director Denis Villeneuve, brilliantly translates this artistic challenge into a societal one, boxing its protagonists in such a world that rejects ascendancy in favor of concentrated stagnation, with some moments encouraging outright regression. The film follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a member of the FBI’s Special Weapons and Tactics Team tasked with tracking down an anonymous drug lord threatening to tear down what semblance of a border between the United States and Mexico remains. Her companions include the shadowy likes of Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), cagey government boogeymen who try their hardest to keep Kate focused on the moment-to-moment logistics of crime fighting rather than the bigger picture. Along the way, Kate must confront whether or not the mission to take on the apparently immortal, omnipresent cartels is worth the price such a battle takes on one’s soul.
It is in this currency of violence that Sicario most frequently (and successfully) traffics in. The film elevates the once low scale stakes “war on drugs” to a full-fledged military affair, enlisting countless primary and background characters who hail from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan to fight a war raging just to the south of us. These perpetually in-flux frontlines create a web of jurisdiction (and by extension ethics) that our heroine finds herself at the heart of. This militarization of what was once considered routine police work forces Kate to take part in a war whose reach far exceeds her measured expectations. This story arc then allows Blunt to tear away at the tough, hardened exterior that such a rough desert landscape requires.
An uncompromising horizon such as this can only change Kate and not vice versa. Fantastically captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins, Sicario makes great uses of wide angle juxtapositions that draw attention to the puniness of its characters against the outsized backdrop of the southern border. Deakins and Villeneuve seem to understand that the very rugged majesty of this climate have the capacity to outperform any overproduced interiors or exteriors. Here, the meandering vistas of the Southwest serve as their own form of Hell. What little time we spend in the city (Juarez) feels like an occupied state on the verge of collapse at any moment. In the end, Sicario shows the drug trade as an ever present decay in a structure that will forever and always fight fire with fire.
The only character that can stand a chance to endure the unforgiving setting is Alejandro. It should be no surprise that del Toro gives yet another intense and memorable performance, a familiar observation to anyone who has followed this actor’s filmography. Viewers who remember del Toro fondly in Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 hyperlink masterpiece Traffic see the same character template found in the older film (unlikely crusader against the drug trade) who has shed any sense of nobility in favor of blind antagonism. Alejandro’s ultimate intentions do not reveal themselves until late in the film but the efficiency through which he pursues them is never in doubt. The pleasures of his very particular set of skills are quickly rebuffed by the monstrous results he inflicts on his victims. Most films would allow you to revel in the violence as a form of righteous catharsis. Here, however, Alejandro makes no qualms about fighting for a side where any sense of the greater good was lost a long time ago.
This nihilistic approach separates Sicario from the by-the-book, pedestrian genre effort it easily could have been. Sure, there are double crosses, Mexican standoffs, and occasional monologues about man’s place in an ever tumultuous world. But Blunt’s feminine presence in an otherwise uniformly masculine world gives the film a perspective of fear and entrapment right in line with the film’s thematic aims. Much like No Country for Old Men before it, Sicario is a supremely well-crafted genre film that also functions as an artistic triumph. Though all may be lost in Sicario’s diegesis, the product on the screen shows that great work can still be done in the limiting box of possibilities Hollywood routinely poses to its practitioners and audience.
Kyle Huffman is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Film Studies.