Image courtesy of Lionsgate Pictures.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. An FBI agent (Emily Blunt) finds herself in deep water while investigating cartel activity in Juarez. Co-starring Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. Trailer.
Why is Sicario the best film of the year so far? It will hold that lofty title, I imagine, for merely a brief time, as we head now into fourth quarter, as new work by Paolo Sorrentino, Danny Boyle, Spielberg, Todd Haynes, David O'Russell, Tarantino (in 70mm!) and others appear (the hyperlinks are trailers to each's respective upcoming films). But after the dust settles Sicario will still rank among the finer achievements of the year.
No director working now is so adept at such finely calibrated, brutal intensity as Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Incendies). There is an atmosphere of menace oozing from every frame. That the opening establishes such a high barometer of dread, and that the film sustains in keeping us off-balance for the remainder of its runtime, is something I find both astonishing and extremely impressive. Villeneuve's impeccable choices of composition and camera placement communicate attitudes and sentiments far beyond what dialogue can offer. His cinematographer, the legendary Roger Deakins (who was so enamored by Incendies that he actually pursued relative unknown Villeneuve to work on Prisoners) conjures up visions of light and dark and detail heretofore unseen.
Why is Villeneuve's tactile sense of menace so impressive to me? Because it stems from a veritable orgy of craftwork. He, Deakins, editor Joe Walker (who works for Steve McQueen) and others, through their prodigious talent and highly considered choices, create with precision. Take a peek at the trailer.
Notice the decision to dedicate an entire shot to moving shadows hitting that small portion of curtain at 00:15, or the choice to focus on dust motes hanging in the air in the explosion shot at 00:17. He attunes us to details. Villeneuve's near-total avoidance of handheld camerawork furthers the sensation of a precise, singular vision conveyed with intention. The use of the wide 2.35:1 scope frame (as opposed to regular 1.85:1 widescreen) makes what could be overly claustrophobic feel expansive, and lends the film a larger, grander sense of scale, despite actually being a fairly intimate portrait of one woman's experience.
Note also some interesting choices such as shooting this dialogue scene with the camera fifty feet away from the actors (01:27), rather than over-relying on close-ups. The trailer presents the moment out of context, but the alienation she feels in that moment is underlined by the distance. Also the general enthusiasm for doing something besides eye-level medium shots (reverse tracking low angle at 01:28, ariel at 1:30). There's a moment not in the trailer involving reflections on a glass table during a key revelation that is masterful, as well as a sequence shot entirely with heat-sensing and night-vision goggles.
Why is all this visual razzmatazz important? It's not razzmatazz, would be my answer. Cinema is a visual medium, and the best examples of it are those films where the visuals communicate ideas and psychological states in ways that can only be done in film- that is, through the camera. We all know pictures are worth a thousand words, and there's no more portent communication delivery device than the moving image.
A film which doesn't take advantage of this is a missed opportunity, and may as well be a stage play.
Critics offer valuable context on content (people are finally realizing reviews are a better indicator of quality than marketing), but rarely have any image-making experience and thus hardly ever mention the craft elements of a picture (more on that here). Which is why I'm here, telling you to look at shots of dust motes. This is undoubtedly the most visually impressive film of the year so far. Note the choice to frame cars driving on a highway like this (01:45), the prevalence of natural light (01:46), or the saturated golden hues late in the picture (2:03).
Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, and Villeneuve as well, were both pressured by suits to rewrite the main character as male. Neither was particularly interested, thank goodness. All but two of Villeneuve's films center on female protagonists, which we always need more of. Like this year's Mad Max, the main character is female, isn't defined by her relationship to males or by romantic attraction to a man, doesn't exist to define or support male characters, has her own agenda, has motivations besides approval by or sex with males, and whose competence requires no explanation. How refreshing. Although, Sicario is perhaps more akin to Zero Dark Thirty (the decade's defining portrait of a woman working in a man's world; my ruminations here) than Mad Max in terms of gender relations; all three films succeed by navigating these issues in stride instead of dwelling on them, but the first two have less to do with gender relations and are more the stories of struggling, highly capable people who just happen to be female. Also pleasing as a casting choice is her partner, a law school graduate, who happens to be African-American.
The Emily Blunt performance is superlative, shaded and brooding, reminding us as she did in Edge of Tomorrow that being formidable and feminine are not mutually exclusive. She holds her own right alongside established greats Brolin and Del Toro, here giving his best performance since Inarritu's underrated 21 Grams (2003). But it's not a simplistic portrait of a woman triumphant, either. Mike D'Angelo of the A.V. Club sums it up well:
"the true victim in (and of) Sicario is its protagonist, who attempts to do the right thing at every turn and is rewarded by being systematically squeezed out of her own story. It’s an uncommonly bold gambit, expressly designed to frustrate people who want to see a strong woman deliver a righteous ass kicking. The progressivism here is instead rooted in futility and despair, which provides much more of a valuable shock to the system."
Villeneuve joked to David Poland that the visual conceit of Prisoners was to set it in the most imagistically boring environment possible (rainy grey contemporary suburbs) and then get Roger Deakins to shoot it. I find that film excellent but nigh-unwatchable because of the horrors of its content. Sicario differs from its predecessor in three key ways. Its subjects (bureaucratic power structures, inter-border political and personal violence, importance of law-breaking by entities maintaining order) don't hit me in as vulnerable places as those in Prisoners (child abduction, torture, home invasion) do. It's imminently more watchable, though similarly as intense and possibly bleaker in its outlook. Villeneuve's penchant for moral uncertainty makes him the perfect choice for a picture on America's drug war.
Secondly, Prisoners, also Villeneuve's first english-language picture, relied more heavily on a genre template than any of his previous pictures. Though the film is (among other things) more about the decline of the affected party's moral compass and the importance of a third party in solving problems, it still uses a genre springboard to hook the audience, and for those audiences looking for nothing more, the whodunit framework involving cops and wrongdoers, et cetera, is prevalent enough. Prisoners transcends genre while still being of it. Sicario relies less on a familiar template.
Like Prisoners, simplistic character labels like good and bad hardly apply, but here that moral haze pervades not just the characters but also the narrative as a whole. There is no visually identified villain to pursue, no clear narrative through-line. Blunt, as the audience surrogate, is taken through strange episodes she struggles to understand, sometimes connecting dots and more often coming up stymied, gradually becoming less and less relevant in an ever-murkier world. It would be a lie to call this a straight drama, as it still embodies a thriller framework, but rather less so than Prisoners.
Thirdly, we're a long ways from boring grey suburbs now, as far as concerns the visual milieu. The simple fact of the locations allow for a visual panache entirely different from that of Prisoners. Deakins wrought magic out of suburban Georgia (the slow push-in on the tree trunk, the racking focus on Dano's glasses inside the RV), but the sun-bleached flatlands, slums, and housing developments offer entirely new opportunities (01:46, 02:00 in the trailer above). Nevertheless, Vileneuve and Deakins seem to like setting challenges for themselves, still maximizing the visual possibilities of some pretty flat locations (the interrogation room with fluorescent lighting being one example).
Other reviews (Scott Foundas at Variety, Mark Olson at The LA Times, Todd McCarthy over at The Hollywood Reporter) do better than I at elucidating the film's many themes. A note should also be made of Johann Johannson's excellent score. I simply hope to contribute by sharing some of the visual dexterity which may be going under-discussed. The content is plenty, but if this had been directed and photographed by a lesser caliber, it wouldn't be anywhere near the film it is.
Note: none of the films mentioned here are for the faint of heart. Don't take this warning lightly. I admire the faint of heart. But these, in their faithful depiction of truly harrowing spaces, are not up to such a par.