Friday, October 2, 2015

Sicario: Bleak depiction of the failed war on drugs

Sicario (2015) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for strong violence, grisly images and profanity

By Derrick Bang

Mexico probably won’t think very highly of this film.

Indeed, a formal state department complaint wouldn’t be surprising.

When Kate (Emily Blunt) demands to know more about the increasingly complicated and
morally questionable government "mission" in which she has agreed to participate, she
gets only vague answers from Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, left) and Matt (Josh Brolin).
But first-time writer Taylor Sheridan can’t be blamed for responding to the increasingly grim headlines that keep erupting south of the border, and it’s not as if any of the events depicted in this drama exaggerate reality. The truth probably remains worse.

And Taylor’s “needs must” notion of a possible U.S. response is more than tantalizing; it feels utterly reasonable. And, frankly, scary.

Better still, Taylor has found the perfect colleague in Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who most recently mesmerized us with 2013’s scary kidnap drama, Prisoners. Villeneuve’s films aren’t merely suspenseful; they’re nervous-making to a degree that prompts disquieting nightmares for days (weeks?) to follow.

He applies the same touch to Sicario, a ripped-from-current-events drama that paints a discouraging portrait of the escalating narcotics border war between the United States and Mexico: a war that we’re clearly losing, as portions of Mexico slide ever closer to becoming failed states. Assuming they haven’t already failed.

We meet our protagonist, Arizona FBI agent and kidnap-response team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), during a raid on an outwardly ordinary suburban home in an average American neighborhood. Kate, steadfast partner/friend Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) and their colleagues encounter resistance and gunfire: an oddly protective response, given the apparently empty house.

But it isn’t empty, as Kate soon discovers. In fact, the residence — clandestinely owned by the leader of a Mexican drug cartel — is a shocking horror.

Back at base, Kate is surprised to find herself profiled by a pair of outsiders: Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), introduced as some sort of State Department task force leader; and a quiet, shadowy individual known only as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Both offer Kate the opportunity to join them in a bold operation designed to “make a statement” and truly do something about a situation that continues to escalate beyond control.

Think carefully before answering, Kate’s boss (the always reliable Victor Garber) warns her. The unspoken implication: The operation might exceed jurisdictional boundaries.

No matter. Kate’s in.

The initial mission seems simple enough: Cross the border into Juárez, to collect a high-level cartel member from prison — Mexican authorities having okayed the extradition — then bring him back to the States for interrogation. But the execution immediately feels wrong to Kate; the team assembled by special agent Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan, late of TV’s Burn Notice) is an unsettling alphabet soup mix of CIA, FBI, district attorney and military forces.

Just to collect a prisoner?

Not precisely, as it turns out. And if this opening sortie exceeds Kate’s comfort zone, what soon follows leaves her idealism in tatters. This is U.S. behavior and justice at work?

“We’re providing a measure of order,” Graver explains, “that we can control.”

Certainly some semblance of order seems necessary, even essential. Kate’s introduction to Juárez is a descent into the seventh level of hell, with teeming, poverty-stricken neighborhoods routinely terrorized by automatic weapon fire, and mutilated bodies hung beneath freeway overpasses. It seems impossible to believe that residents endure amid such unrestrained chaos, and yet they do; children eagerly turn out for sporting matches, their parents uneasily looking up at each distant — or nearby — staccato burst.

Villeneuve and Sheridan make a point of depicting how such grim events affect relationships: whether within families, or between friends and colleagues. An adolescent boy patiently waits each morning to find out whether his father (Maximiliano Hernández), a Juárez policeman, will have time to practice soccer. Reggie grows concerned about Kate’s moral choices; it clearly threatens their friendship.

Kate, as well, finds the sand shifting beneath her sense of social consciousness, her bearings increasingly adrift. She’s a loner by nature, and this situation enhances her sense of isolation. This, in turn, leads to the story’s most fascinating relationship: the growing bond, of sorts, between Kate and the mysterious Alejandro.

Del Toro continues to have the best sleepy-eyed stare in Hollywood, his quietly focused gaze always speaking volumes: in this case, primarily menace. We never doubt Alejandro’s implacable skill and resourcefulness, or his ability to finesse and survive even the most dangerous situation. And yet the man also has an unexpectedly tender side, Del Toro’s expression and solemn line readings suggesting something deeper — regret? protective concern? — every time he shares a moment with Kate.

Blunt, in turn, meets the challenge of her morally conflicted character. Kate is a woman of subtle complications and contradictions; she wants to “make a difference,” but finds it ever more difficult to justify the means toward that end. The uncertainty and indecision are crippling her, and Blunt is every inch a person in crisis. It’s like we’re watching Kate lose her soul, drop by precious drop.

On a lighter note — at least, until matters become critical — Blunt and Kaluuya do a marvelous job with the relationship between Kate and Reggie. The bond isn’t romantic, although it’s certainly caring; they’re more like a bantering, gently bickering brother and sister. This link becomes crucial, as Reggie becomes Kate’s only hold on sanity.

Where Del Toro is quietly, calmly sinister, Brolin’s Graver is brash, chatty and cheerfully unscrupulous, and laden with Texas-style swagger. (It’s perhaps unfortunate that Brolin affects so similar an attitude in the recently released Everest.) He sports a ready smile that invariably lacks sincerity, his dancing eyes betraying absolutely nothing.

And, Kate soon suspects, everything he says is, at best, a half-truth ... and more likely a whole lie.

That, in turn, points to a plot point that Villeneuve and Sheridan rely on perhaps too heavily: We grow annoyed by the way Kate is constantly belittled, ignored, humiliated, taken advantage of, and left in the dark. She seems superfluous to the narrative, her presence dictated less by what Graver and Alejandro require, and more by her role as our surrogate: her moral compass existing to mirror our own growing unease.

There’s no way such an individual ever would be included, if such operations actually get mounted. Nobody would want to risk the potential public blowback from her ethical uncertainty.

So, okay, fine; she’s a narrative device. But if this role becomes slightly obvious at times, it certainly doesn’t diminish this film’s power; Blunt is far too interesting as a character, and Villeneuve knows precisely how to keep our emotional screws tightened.

Speaking of which, considerable credit for that nervous tension also belongs to composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose percussive soundtrack is, by itself, the stuff of unsettling nightmares. This isn’t a score that’ll play at home as a stand-alone album, but it’s note-perfect for Villeneuve’s film, and contributes greatly to moods that range from disquieting to devastatingly poignant.

On an historical note, we can’t help being reminded of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which brought Del Toro his Academy Award. Villeneuve and Sheridan haven’t stitched a tapestry quite that broad or complicated, but the backdrop and tone certainly are similar.

Traffic left us with only the faint possibility that enough good people might remain, to help transform Mexico’s vicious narco culture. But that was 15 years ago, and things have only gotten worse. Much worse.

It’s hard (impossible?) to exit Sicario without succumbing to the bleakest despair. But I’m also left with another uneasy question: How will the next drama, in another 15 years, handle this issue?

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