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Sicario (2015)

Law & Borders

The day before I saw Sicario, Lionsgate announced that it was already working on a follow-up. Oddly, this changed my perception of the film I was about to watch: developing sequels to movies that haven't come out yet is common in the popcorn realm of sci-fi franchises and comic-book movies, but director Denis Villeneuve's drug-war thriller was supposed to be Oscar fare, right? Are we universe-building with Serious Films now? Will 2017 be the year SicarIIo goes head-to-head with The IImitation Game and 45 Years Part II: Part I? I kid, of course, but it was weird having to re-set my expectations for a film that I hadn't previously considered capable of spawning a series.*

Having now watched Sicario, I can both compliment and criticize Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan for creating a movie that feels like the start of something larger. On one hand, the film features tremendous performances from great actors, and tackles its meaty subject matter with all the high-tech gear, location-hopping, and Roger Deakins lens-work money can buy. On the other hand, its structure is episodic, which breaks the big picture into little pictures--which, by turns of plot and theme, splinter further into tiny pictures that might be better suited for an HBO or Netflix series order. On a third, severed hand, Sicario is a visually spellbinding cliché assassin that deserves some big-screen love (for artistic reasons not at all related to the bottom line).

The plot is essentially Traffic by way of Zero Dark Thirty. While investigating a house full of corpses in Arizona, FBI agent Kate Mercer is recruited to work on a joint task-force with the Department of Defense. As represented by the duplicitous, shorts-and-sandals-wearing Matt (Josh Brolin) and a practically silent something-or-other named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), the team has been ordered to disrupt the cash flow of a brutal Mexican cartel. The death-house, it is believed, was a burial spot for snitches and enemies, and Kate's eagerness for answers lands her at the tip of the DoD spear. Before she can say "jurisdiction", Matt has her tagging along on a covert kidnapping mission, engaging in a mule-tunnel firefight, and questioning the loyalty and priorities of everyone around her. Sicario even climaxes with a late-night compound raid, the result of which finds our heroine adrift in a darker, more complex world of fluid morality.

What sets Sicario apart from films like it (of which there are many) is Sheridan's understanding of his audience's weariness with the genre's tropes. Without giving too much away, I'll say this film sidesteps the post-climax loose-ends-tidying that usually accompanies stories about hitmen and secret government ops. There's no moustache-twirling, no drawn-out exposition. The second-hand puppeteers melt back into the shadows, moving onto some new assignment that will have officially never happened. The movie is full of these neat little tweaks to convention, including a late-breaking development that made me wonder whose story this really is.

It also helps that Blunt, Brolin, Del Toro, and Daniel Kaluuya (as Kate's sidelined Bureau partner) form a delectable quartet of charisma that imbues Sicario with an unexpected sense of humor. The sour, brooding, wounded characters in this film are not at the top of the marquee. They're little-seen middle-managers who must deal with the orders coming from flippant, dangerous superiors, while also tempering the expectations of idealists who've barely begun climbing the ladder. I could ramble on about each of the main cast, but I'll leave that treasure trove of brilliance for you to discover.**

The cherry on top of Sicario is Jóhann Jóhannsson's score. Infused with what sound like the screams of women and children and explosions, the orchestration underscores Villenueuve's themes of unspeakable violence humming just beyond our borders--both the physical ones and the psychic barriers we put up to convince ourselves that gunfire, mass beheadings, and inescapable poverty can only happen "over there" (it is perhaps cosmic poetry that one of Alejandro's interrogation methods involves jamming his finger in a redneck's ear). Jóhannsson's bleak soundtrack pairs hauntingly with Deakins' sweeping, tree-pocked Mexican desertscapes, which may hide untold numbers of passages, bodies, and dashed dreams.

On the down side, the very nature of our ever-lasting drug war makes narrative closure impossible. Like Traffic, the scenarios in Sicario form little more than a depressing snapshot whose place in the grand scheme of things is irrelevant. As a revelation for our wide-eyed characters to rail against, that is gripping stuff. As the ultimate point of a movie, though, it's as shrug-worthy a venture as Thor: The Dark World. Just as surely as multiple drug lords will sprout from the gaping head wound of each deposed gangster, we are destined to sit through more Hollywood epics about the drug trade. Lionsgate guarantees it.

*Sorry, one more: How's about Sicario: Agent 47?

**Okay, that's a lie. I haven't seen Brolin do anything like this before. With his gum-chewing, pseudo-jock cool, I could easily imagine him as having been a runner-up to Jeff Bridges. He's positively magnetic, and would make a terrific Phil Coulson-type in the inevitable ABC spin-off, Agents of S.I.C.A.R.I.O.