not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
I left Sicario feeling a little disappointed, even as I had to admit the cinematography and performances were universally great. Denis Villeneuve made me appreciate how difficult it is to do what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal do in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Sicario seems to be trying to do something similar—create a story about the murky nature of modern-day warfare, and the physical and psychological toll it takes on the soldiers and the people caught in the middle—but Villeneuve’s approach lacks the verisimilitude Boal/Bigelow manage to create. Worth seeing, maybe not worth going to see. Spoiler-free territory ends here.
The most immediately off-putting thing about the film is how it undercuts its message. I feel like I’m supposed to leave the theater thinking about endless complexities and questionable morality of the drug war, how it’s this big unsolvable monster with no easy solutions. But if I’m supposed to be thinking that, how come I just watched Benicio del Toro fulfill the fantasy every Arizona Minuteman has ever had about solving the drug war? Brolin’s character can give Blunt’s all the reasons he wants why he didn’t explain the plan beforehand, but I suspect the real reason is that any straightforward explanation would have played exactly like the “Walter’s Dirty Undies” scene in The Big Lebowski. Del Toro literally figures out where the guy is by grabbing one of them and beating it out of him! Well, shooting him in the leg, but seriously, this is comic book logic at the climax of a film that has been presenting itself as a grim, unflinching look at the reality of the U.S./Mexico border.
And then there’s the similarly manipulative “little boy gets breakfast for his father” scenes, which seem to be occurring in an entirely different movie. Again, Villeneuve seems to be going for something interesting here, subverting our expectations…but the subversion feels empty to me, because it’s not like the adorable-little-boy scenes told me anything about the father other than that he likes jalapenos in his eggs and whiskey in his coffee. I hate ascribing motives to directors when I have no real evidence, but I couldn’t help but feel after those scenes and their eventual endpoint that Villeneuve either thinks I’m a lot stupider than I actually am, or is way too impressed with his own subversion of expectations. I felt the same way about the end of Prisoners (spoilers, obvs): The guy who was illegally imprisoning a suspect has now become imprisoned himself! What a craaaaaazy turn of events! I bet you didn’t see that coming!
When I kept trying to understand why I felt so dissatisfied after watching an inarguably gorgeously-shot and well-acted film, I kept going back to Prisoners. Both films seem to repeat the same character beats ad nauseam without variation or change. Hugh Jackman is angry, Terrence Howard is weepy and ineffectual, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano are weird. And they stay that way, from the beginning of scenes to the end, from the beginning of the film to the end. There’s no progression, no development, not even a change in the way we regard the characters (Jackman seems dangerously violent at the beginning, dangerously violent in the middle, and dangerously violent right up until he knocks on the wrong door) or, as with Nightcrawler, in the way we regard our own relationship to the film (the whole thing seems too staged for us to feel particularly implicated in what Villeneuve thinks is wrong with our culture).
I got the same feeling from Sicario: we feel much the same about Brolin and del Toro as we do at the end, Blunt’s character is just as out of her depth in the beginning as in the end, Daniel Kaluuya is just as decent and ineffective at the beginning as at the end (it’s a little weird, too, that in both Sicario and Prisoners, Villeneuve casts the one black guy in a role that feels like it was left in the film by accident). Our understanding of del Toro’s character changes a little, but the revelations are nothing you weren’t already thinking. The result is a film that attempts to jerk the rug out from under us, but fails to notice we’re not standing on the rug.
Bigelow and Boal’s two films offer a useful counterpoint, because they’re similarly static—Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker is literally in the same place at the beginning and end of the film; the characters in Zero Dark Thirty casually refer to the Al-Qaeda lists that they seem to assume they will always be on: Bin Laden might die, but none of them think the war’s going anywhere. And yet in these films it doesn’t feel rote or manipulative in the way it does in the two Villeneuve films I’ve seen. And I think it’s because Boal and Bigelow, rather than trying to set up something conventionally cinematic and then attempting to “subvert” that with something ostensibly less cinematic, begin and end in the workaday realities of their characters’ lives. They show us people going about their work, and rather than use it as an anvil on which to hammer out a metaphor, they trust us to understand their viewpoint and interact with it as we will (as the reaction to Zero Dark Thirty shows, sometimes they arguably trust too much).
Villeneuve, though, seems to be stuck in a particularly embarrassing sort of undergraduate posturing, which his undeniable technical skill manages to cover or pass off as profound. He hires possibly the best living cinematographer for all his films, gives his actors enough stuff to do that he can attract genuine talent (I’m pretty sure each big-name actor gets at least one Oscar-reel moment in each film), and chooses subjects that seem like they should speak to pressing socio-political issues of our time. I just can’t see any coherent vision at the center of all of this, beyond the general sentiment that everything sucks and is probably bullshit. Maybe Incendies and Enemy communicate that vision more clearly, or maybe Villeneuve will take an extra leap with his Blade Runner project (though letting Villeneuve loose in that universe, where gorgeous visuals and questionable profundity already abound, strikes me as more dangerous than promising). But with Sicario, I’ve bounced off Villeneuve again, and I’m not sure how long I can keep going back on technical merits alone.