The war on drugs fueled violence just south of the border in Mexico offers a wealth of inspiration for anyone looking to craft a taut and nuanced portrayal of cinematic crime. The cartels who vie for power and control of the trafficking routes are notorious for the extremes they’ll go to exert their authority on the towns that pepper the areas both north and south of the border, and the dramatics of their attacks provide the perfect starting point for narrative fiction. Crime is captivating for audiences and has been since time immemorial. We like tales of cops and robbers for the clearly defined boundary between good and evil—it helps us make sense of the world and easily demarcated camps play right into our black and white thinking.
Of course, black and white philosophy works best in a perfect world, and ours is a world far from perfect. As relatable as the typical cops and robbers motif is for audiences, the best crime movies are the ones where lines are blurred, where sometimes evil is cheered and good is evil. Is there a line that must not be crossed in the pursuit of justice? What, exactly, is justice, anyway? These are the questions that Sicario attempts to explore, though I’m not so sure it’s examined as well as the movie seems to think it is.
Emily Blunt plays FBI Agent Kate Macer, a highly respected agent known for her tactical fortitude and experience with deadly situations. As the violence of the cartels begins to intensify, Macer is drafted into a special squad helmed by the secretive Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his shadowy right hand man known only as Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). As the operation unfolds, Macer discovers she’s not been privy to the full scope and purpose of the task force, and she quickly discovers that things might not be exactly what they seemed and that, in order to do the job, she may have to cross a few lines she’s not prepared to cross.
It’s an interesting premise that’s presented well enough, for the most part. Macer serves as a perfect introduction into the world of cartel violence, offering viewers a relatable perspective from which to view the ultimately complex narrative that unfolds. Unfortunately, it’s in the complexity that the narrative begins to breakdown.
Sicario has a lot working in its favor. The script, from first timer Taylor Sheridan, is taut and well thought out, for what it is. It presents the complex political world of the war against the cartels as straight forward as possible while still retaining its secrets just enough to keep us compelled through the twists and turns it takes us on. However, there’s one turn in particular that, while effective, feels slightly underdone. Not by much, and the film very nearly hits all the marks, but the result is akin to finding a doughy center in an otherwise delicious pizza—it’s just off-putting enough to sour your experience and ultimately overshadows the rest of your enjoyment.
Still, director Denis Villeneuve manages to hold everything together and deliver a mostly satisfying crime epic that asks some tough questions and explores some difficult themes. Is right always right and is wrong always wrong? What lengths are okay to travel? Where is the line between the good and the bad? It’s not exactly original, of course, and it’s all themes that have been explored better and in more depth elsewhere, but Sicario does manage to hold its own against the other greats of the genre. But only just.
With a little more time to craft and characterize, Sicario would have been one of the best movies of the year. As is, it’s still solid enough, despite being a bit undeveloped in parts. Perhaps the intent was to let audiences draw their own conclusions, and I admit that this works well for the film, just not well enough. It’s the kind of movie that tricks you into thinking it’s about one thing before becoming about something else entirely with little or no warning beforehand. This technique has worked well in the past, but it’s a tricky line to walk and the slightest misstep can send the entire façade crumbling to the ground. That doesn’t quite happen in this case, but it does make you hold your breath as it threatens to crash before your eyes. While none of this ruins the entire experience, per se, it definitely becomes a movie that’s far less memorable that it probably ought to have been.
Sicario is now playing in theaters everywhere.