After all, it's just a ride….

Sicario (2015)

sica1If you were wondering then Sicario is Latin American street slang for assassin, a gun for hire that the narco crime lords employ to execute the frequent enforcement of their complex matrix of allegiances and enemies, a helpful contextual primer that is communicated by an initial title card which opens Denis Villeneuve’s oppressive and unforgiving Mexican maelstrom. As someone who has been grimly fascinated with the horrific Mexican drugs war over the past decade and a recent purveyor of this shocking expose this movie bullseyed my buttons at a conceptual level, particularly when early screenings left commentators muttering of the film being the equivalent of Michael Mann at his professional best. Villeneuve has slowly amassed a strong reputation as a talent to watch after recent pictures Enemy and Prisoners, not to mention his Foreign Language Oscar nomination for 2010’s Incendies, with of course the controversially awaited Blade Runner sequel next in his firing line. Coincidently I re-watched Soderbergh’s Traffic a fortnight ago which nervously traverses similar territory, following the modern narcotics trade across the border as well as also starring the always dependable Benicio Del Toro. As a 2000 picture it already feels like a product of another pre 9/11 era, and evidently we have learnt and achieved precisely nothing in the intervening years with further trillions of dollars spent on the same prohibition policy, with thousands brutally murdered and the destabilization of the entire sovereign state resulting in more lucrative revenue returns year by year, ably supported by the unimpeachable corrupt money laundering machine. Traffic followed a portfolio of experiences on both sides of the law and through the baptism of pushers and users to explore the sulphurous reach and might of the modern drug trade. The sprawling approach is chiselled down to a rigorous tensile strength in Sicario by providing only one surrogate, F.B.I. agent Kate Macer (a bewildered Emily Blunt) who runs a kidnap-response squad that unearths a gruesome find in a Arizona suburb, with fatal consequences for some of her unsuspecting colleagues. The stage is set for a dangerous journey into another screen metaphorical heart of darkness, in this phenomenal politically charged & adrenalized thriller, a prime candidate for film of the year.

sica2With the guilt of her comrades loss still ringing in her ears Macer is recruited to join a Mexican excursion,  joining an intangible organisation which slots somewhere in the Venn diagram of  the C.I.A., D.E.A., and local wet-work proficient weekend warriors. Her handler is Matt (Josh Brolin), a flip-flop sporting walking definition of the insouciant ideology, an operative who seems to regard the narco infrastructure as a wasp’s nest which it would be fun to aggravate, with a carefully attuned disregard for the lethal fallout that his activities  might inflame. More enigmatic  is the figure of Alejandro (a deadly del Toro) who is also attached to the anti-cartel operation, the quiet, stoic type with a worrying hand tremor who seems to harbour some secret interest in the slowly writhing and devious plan. The operation rests on a dangerous gamble, to draw senior Narco kingpin Manuel Díaz (Bernardo Saracino) out into the open by transporting his brother from the corrupt clutches of the Mexican authorities to US jurisdiction. Macer’s repeated queries as to why her in involvement is needed falls on increasingly deaf ears, until small coincidences and lethal situations begin to coalesce into an unscrupulous whole……

sica3This is grim, uncompromising filmmaking that yearns to defibrillate the severe problems at the subject matters core, a numbing sense of uncontrollable atrocities and unstoppable corruption which the authorities are not only powerless to prevent but also tangentially complicit. Sicario has the confidence to take the time to weave its malodorous spell, investing the story with a palpable sense of slowly encroaching menace, and a haunting sense that all the players are merely rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic and are fully aware of the futility of their struggle. One of the key touchpoints is tension wrought through tensile strength, as shots are held absurdly long by todays contemporary standards, giving the viewers a sense of the physical geometry of the conflicts and threats, and a pregnant sense of  apprehensive foreboding. This is a modern nation-state where the overnight appearance of dozens of mutilated corpses at busy transport nodal points is an unremarkable apparition, the social ripples of crimes and complicity straining to the pulse of Jóhann Jóhannsson  ominous and sinewy score.

sica5I’d have my critical membership card revoked if I didn’t allude to Roger Deakins crepuscular cinematography, which once again marks him as one of the finest half-dozen dozen if not the finest cameraman working today. It’s not just the magic hour vistas of the sun barely hurling its golden tendrils across a slowly ripening sky, it’s not the aerial vistas which shudder with an omnipotent understanding of parched, urban wasteland as a raging and moral hell on earth. The visual tapestry is also in the small details, the source lighting in the scene drawing our eyes to slowly crystallising narrative fulcrums and characters, and the swirling unseen forces and allegiances which glue the film together with a choking, clandestine intent. There is a sequence that oscillates through night vision google POV, to satellite imagery to isolated nocturnal figures  moving stealthily through deadly territory, a landscape where we have crossed the line physically, morally and metaphorically, the psychology of the opponents illustrating the dictionary definition of madness – to repeat the same activity (prohibition in this case), to retrace the same mistakes and expect different results. There are also a few surprises in a plot which twists and turns in potentially frustrating ways, but when you’re that far down the rabbit hole only a deeper decent can possibly embrace the films unforgiving and unrelenting core.

sica4There seems to be a group of my brethren that have been turned off by the film due its negative posture and total failure to offer any solutions, no light at the end of the tunnel of a decade of endemic numbing brutality, where the illicit material tsunami’s across the globe to the Western and developing elites in quantities and purity completely unaffected by law enforcements feeble thrashing. I say this to those people – grow the fuck up. It is not, nor has it ever been the purpose of narratives or art to offer any solutions, the only responsibility is to the story and its characters which Villeneuve acquaints admirably, although some of blunter musings and dramatic arcs might be a little contrived – with no pun intended.  If you have even a passing knowledge of exactly the scale of the atrocities and events which have plagued Mexico for the past fifteen years then the only judgement is that perhaps the filmmakers weren’t tough enough, where instead they craft a gripping environment of perpetual anxiety and uncertainty which should have been more drenched in the entrails of innocent men, women and children caught in the poverty-stricken crossfire. Now if anyone wants to help me trace and apprehend Villeneuve’s first two features Polytechnique and Maelström then all help will be respectfully accepted, although the latter has a Region 1 DVD release it goes in collectors circles for over $200 a copy – that’s just criminal.……

One response

  1. Joe Baker

    Great review for a great film. One of my faves as well. I’m watching “Polytechnique” soon and “Maelstrom”, while not as strong narratively as his other films, it does look and feel terrific with some of the same hazy, dark focus on sunlight breaking through windows and some of the best night-time shots this side of Mann. His films can be found with some online digging if that interests you.

    October 14, 2015 at 6:35 AM

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