Cannes 2015: Denis Villeneuve’s narco-thriller ‘Sicario’ has mass appeal


Sicario: Bring Out the Popcorn
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Taylor Sheridan
USA, 2015

Denis Villeneuve’s narco-thriller Sicario is likely the most broadly accessible film in this year’s competition, a very watchable, schematically Hollywoodian production more at home at the Oscars than at Cannes. It stars, tragically, Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer and, unsurprisingly, Benicio Del Toro as special drugs advisor Alejandro. Kate is recruited from her hostage crisis unit to a secretive anti-drugs mission at the margins of legality following a gruesome, finely crafted opening sequence in which she leads the bust of a safe house full of rows of executed hostages concealed into the walls. Gradually she clues in as to the nature of the mission – her role is merely procedural, as the presence of an FBI agent is apparently obligatory as a front for Alejandro and rogue operation head Matt (Josh Brolin).

There are episodic flashes of the  brilliant Villeneuve touch that enchanted me in Incendies, namely the gorgeous aerial shots of the sprawling labyrinth of Ciudad Juarez and the surrounding countryside as an ominous terrain of human misery existing beyond the reaches of any law enforcement agency, as well as the gradually instilled realization that the fight against the cartels will never be won or ended. Although clumsily executed, the exchange in which Matt finally reveals to Kate the endgame of American anti-drugs policy – drugs will never be eradicated, there needs to be a state of equilibrium achieved between in the power-struggling ruling cartels and various state governments – sounds realistically pessimistic, as does the lack of resolution. So far as conveying the hopelessness of the official war on drugs and the myriad human miseries involved, Sicario does a fine job.

However, despite several unexpected twists, the overall script and relationships between characters are extremely formulaic and calculated – the supporting part of the black cop, the over-the-top, blatantly rule-bending badass boss (Brolin), Benicio del Toro in a film about Mexicans and drugs trafficking, and the seemingly unrelated storylines converging at the end – one is forgiven the involuntary mental association with Soderbergh’s Traffic or even González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. And while Del Toro is again excellent and brings a strong dose of charisma to his role, Brolin and Blunt are both awfully miscast. Brolin tries too hard as the reckless, not by-the-book, but ultimately brave cop, while Blunt is never credible as an FBI agent. Her badly executed manly gait is ridiculous, and ugly clothes are not sufficient to signify toughness. It is a painful pity watching her convey internal conflict by various modes of face twitching, the occasional swallowed tear or outraged grimace. She is not aided by the at times preposterous dialogue – “You look like a little girl when you cry, you remind me of my daughter,” Del Toro’s supposedly Columbian father of a young child tells her. Other elements of ridiculousness are the teary hostage team histrionically retching after the initial hostage crisis, as well as the stunted Spanish dialogues involving Mexican officer Silvio’s family.

Overall, while Sicario does a fine job of “scratching the surface,” as one character puts it, of the hopeless war on drugs and some of the human costs on those involved in it, Emily Blunt’s incoherent casting and appalling performance nearly manage to ruin a fine thriller.

Zornitsa Staneva

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