The state of permanent anxiety America finds itself in with regard to its borders means we’re probably due a bulletin like Sicario every few years. Orson Welles got here first, setting the explosive opening of Touch of Evil on the U.S.-Mexico meridian, but Sicario’s real precedent would be 2000’s Traffic, from which it retains the services of Benicio del Toro as one who walks both sides of the line. That film was elevated by Steven Soderbergh’s abiding fascination with shape, colour and form, and how pieces of a narrative puzzle can break away and tessellate like landmasses. The new film, written by rookie Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve, is more straightforward, apparently driven by no more than a desire to do something hard-hitting at the dead centre of the multiplex: the bombs are louder, the collateral damage more explicit, the prevailing tactic shock-and-awe.
You grasp as much from the opening, in which a kidnap-response team led by FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) storm a suspect’s home in the Arizona wilds and, after dodging an initial fusillade, uncover the decomposing corpses of a dozen torture victims being used as cavity wall insulation. Everybody’s just finished vomiting when Macer’s colleagues trigger an explosion, literally disarming the forces of law and order – in that we see one officer scrabbling among the rubble in search of his severed hands. Such horror is potent, and in this instance, it serves a narrative purpose: when shady, CIA-affiliated headhunter Josh Brolin subsequently offers Macer the opportunity to join his taskforce in order to pursue the cartels responsible for the carnage over the border, it’s no surprise she should say yes.
Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) can flag a grim, nervy mood: whether Kate’s surrounded by guys in a hurly-burly briefing room or sitting in convoy peering at mutilated bodies suspended from bridges – Sicario’s idea of a “Welcome to Mexico” banner – we’re always wondering just what our heroine has got herself into. Equally, though, you can feel him laying it on a bit thick. Soderbergh brought a typically cool, analytical approach to the War on Drugs, examining every level from the ground up. Sicario, by contrast, is the sound of arrivistes making a galumphing statement with the high-end resources now available to them; it takes its lead from Brolin’s pre-raid war cry “We want a lot of noise – think Fourth of July on steroids.”
It yields a number of terse set-pieces, punched up by Johann Johansson’s pounding score: a checkpoint stand-off with gangbangers that leaves bodies in the road for their fellow Mexicans to see; a cantina pick-up that goes near-fatally awry; a night-vision sequence that strives to replicate the tense denouement of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Yet there’s a nagging sense that set-pieces are all Sicario has to offer; that it’s revelling in, rather than really saying anything about America’s failures in this decidedly immediate field of foreign relations. Sheridan’s insights come in dispatches (a muttered “this won’t even make the papers in El Paso” as the convoy pulls away from that blood-spattered checkpoint), while Villeneuve’s framing suffers a honkingly literal mise-en-abime when the camera looks away during a brutal interrogation so as to refocus on a nearby grate: everything’s going down the drain, duh.
Blunt gives another smart and watchful performance – the film needs her to offset the swaggering machismo – but the script takes a serious wrong turn around the halfway mark, when Kate’s capability suddenly becomes less important than her fuckability; the committed pro of the first hour is redefined as first a woman, then a liability, then really no more than a sideshow. You could argue a point’s being made about the place intuition has on this ultra-macho turf, but it is, like much of Sicario, so brusquely achieved as to feel insulting. The whole is just obvious enough to rustle up some business, and doubtless secure Villeneuve’s place on the Hollywood career ladder. But it lands its one truly substantial shot early on, with an expressive succession of helicopter shots that show the border stretching across the screen, a vast, untamed frontier that suggests how the Wild West of yore has migrated south. It will be drowned out by the loud crashes and bangs, but here at least Sicario ventures an urgent, pertinent question: how do you even begin to police that?
(MovieMail, September 2015)
Sicario screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.