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'Sicario' Review: Emily Blunt Becomes a Bystander In What Amounts to Little More than a 'Dude' Flick

By Caspar Salmon | Film | September 25, 2015 |

By Caspar Salmon | Film | September 25, 2015 |

Sicario belongs to a genre that hasn’t blessed us with many stone-cold classics - namely, the ‘issues thriller.’ Denis Villeneuve (Enemy, Prisoners) has made a film that tries to cleave to a social realist style, underlining the reality of drugs cartels and people smuggling from Mexico to the USA, while also giving us a thriller with guns and wisecracking. The two co-existing conceits don’t always gel, and some viewers may be sadly reminded of The Constant Gardener.

Emily Blunt plays Kate, a talented young FBI agent recruited to a mission headed by two lawless operatives played by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro. With her partner (Daniel Kaluuya, always good), Kate becomes increasingly disturbed by her new bosses’ underhand methods: violence, intimidation, deceit. As they head into Mexico and then Texas to try and smoke out the leader of one especially grim cartel, Kate becomes aware she’s being used to legitimise an extremely dodgy operation. We find ourselves, then, in the unbelievably tired trope of the promising young buck who finds himself or herself in too deep. Cue a number of scenes in which Emily Blunt is obliged to say things like, “Damn it, will someone tell me what’s going on?!”

Sicario keeps you fooled for a long time. For a good forty minutes, the film’s unbelievably stylish facade, the sensitivity of its performances, and the urgency of its script make you believe you are attending something far more profound, more thought through than it actually turns out to be. Astonishingly magnetic opening scenes throw the viewer with a huge bang right into the heart of the action, as Kate’s team busts some wrongdoers: the camera-work by Roger Deakins is dynamic, and Johann Johansson’s jarring, throbbing score meshes with the propulsive action. When the dust settles, we discover the characters themselves - and Emily Blunt’s unforced, naturalistic performance imposes Kate as a readily believable protagonist. All of this feels natural and engaging.

From there the operation begins to be set up and the plot kicks in to place. Huge overhead shots from cranes and helicopters, and busy, jumpy camera work on the ground capture all of this superbly. Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin are introduced; they explain the mission. It all sounds plausible, up to a point — and as an audience you’re willing to accept the kind of grandiose style the film has taken on because it keeps hammering home the very real horror of its backdrop. But soon the tone starts to jar. For one thing, Josh Brolin seems to have jumped in from a different film: complete with quips and shit-eating grin, he seems to be more in A-Team mode than sombre thriller. Meanwhile, the death toll mounts without Villeneuve honouring everyone’s humanity: when people start getting offed left, right and centre, and they don’t exist as people any more but as targets or impediments to the heroes, you know you’re in trouble.

Ultimately, Sicario’s problems derive from a surfeit of self-seriousness: there are ways to talk about drugs and immigration that are serious and urgent, but that don’t also involve the kind of compromise of tone you let yourself in for when you’re also making a thriller. You can’t have your cake and eat it. Villeneuve believes himself to be also showing ‘the Mexican side’ and to be revealing that there are ‘no good guys or bad guys, everything is very ambiguous, yeah?’ — but in reality we are shown an American perspective that gets nowhere near the heart of the problem. What of the lives of those people who are so desperate they are fleeing their friends and families? What about the existences of people affected by drug trafficking? Villeneuve isn’t interested in this — his story merely seeks to show us the ambiguously good guys getting their man. A scene towards the end that is written and executed with staggering violence and cynicism, removes the last ounce of humanity there was. The film’s form makes a mockery of everything it tells you is at stake.

Meanwhile, the film tries to be forward-thinking in having a female operative at its heart, and to show you how she gets screwed over by double-dealing men — but the film itself screws over its lead actor by finally making her a bystander in what finally amounts to little more than a dude flick.