There’s no question that director Denis Villeneuve makes important films—just ask the films. Starting with his 2010 breakthrough, Incendies, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the Canadian filmmaker has fashioned movies that are undeniably gripping but also suffocating in their hand-wringing self-seriousness. A movie like 2013’s Prisoners, about a kidnapping in a small American town, deals forcefully with the ethics of torture and the toxic effects of violence on individuals, but Villeneuve goes about his business in such a heavy-handed way that his worthy commentary risks becoming insufferable. Ironically, the best film of this period, the twisted lark Enemy, is the loosest and cheekiest—normally, he won’t allow himself to have any fun because he’s too busy lecturing his audience.
Villeneuve’s considerable strengths and severe limitations are both present in Sicario, a Traffic-by-way-of-Zero Dark Thirty look at American drug policy along the Mexican border. This propulsive action thriller (which is scheduled to open in the U.S. in September) boasts a series of strong performances and is punctuated by some ace suspense sequences. As a piece of sleek, grown-up entertainment, it most assuredly succeeds. But it’s all the trappings around Sicario where matters get far more complicated. Villeneuve very much wants to tell us how corrupt our government agencies are and how muddled the line between good and bad is. But more often than not, his message doesn’t come across as shocking or despairing—merely self-congratulatory in its world-weary cynicism. Sicario wants to salute our ability to read a newspaper.
The film stars a quietly forceful Emily Blunt as Kate Macer, an FBI agent working kidnapping cases in the Southwest who is recruited to join a mysterious CIA operation involving Mexican drug cartels. Leading this mission is special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), whom we deduce is the prototypical bad boy who doesn’t play by the rules because he attends staff meetings in flip-flops.
Graver, Macer and a shadowy Colombian figure named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) are in pursuit of a Mexican kingpin who’s killed countless innocent people to increase his empire. But Macer will soon learn, surprise surprise, that her new colleagues don’t operate within acceptable boundaries of the law. Torturing suspects and opening fire on targets in the middle of crowded stretches of highway, Graver and Alejandro believe the ends justify the means, even if innocent lives are threatened. In America’s flailing war on drugs, their attitude is quickly becoming the only one that makes any sense.
Few would refute Sicario’s underlying points that the U.S. is engaged in an unwinnable war and that law enforcement sometimes behaves in ways that would anger most Americans. But whether it’s Traffic, for which Del Toro won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, or recent documentaries such as Cartel Land, the movies have already extensively chronicled the failures and terrors of the border. So it’s a little difficult to accept when Villeneuve sets up his film to be a hard-hitting exposé, making Macer our wide-eyed surrogate who simply cannot fathom the gray area where hotshots like Graver do their dirty work in the name of busting the cartels. When Graver delivers matter-of-fact speeches to the young FBI agent—Brolin has a ball playing this cocky SOB—screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s dialogue has a pithy, pungent rat-a-tat-tat that’s meant to be cold hard truth. But it mostly comes across as fashionably knowing, a filmmaker’s trick to condense the complexity of the world into slick tough talk.
Villeneuve demonstrates his grit and urgency much more convincingly in the film’s handful of expert action sequences. Brawny and varied—taking place everywhere from an apartment living room to an abandoned stretch of midnight road—these set pieces are gorgeously photographed by Roger Deakins, tensely scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson and exquisitely edited by Joe Walker, creating a feast for the senses while drawing us into their taut immediacy. And although Sheridan underlines his themes too bluntly, he has crafted a plot that moves in engaging, unpredictable ways, especially when it shifts its focus from one central character to another at an unexpected moment. Even if Sicario doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know about America’s drug wars, it tells it with abundant skill. Which, sometimes, is more important than making important films.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedillo
Release Date: Screening in Competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.