04 October, 2015

Zero Narc Thirty

A Review of Sicario (2015)
by James Kislingbury

I've been burnt by films like this before.
The Counselor leaps most readily to mind. It had a perfect cast, a great director, a screenplay from the English language's greatest living writer, and it was a disaster. Top to bottom blegh. A front to back conveyor belt of vomit and fish heads that is was so perfectly constructed, you almost have to wonder if Ridley Scott was entering into some kind of a Fat Tuesday-like purge of his baser artistic instincts. More recently True Detective Season 2 pops to mind, but the less energy spent on that thing the better.

I say this because expectations can be a terrible thing, especially when your expectations are not only not met, but pulled forcibly from your arms and thrown into a well. Even when a film is good, your expectations can often sabotage your appreciation of that film. "Well, it could have been better," you say, walking through the parking lot, glumly talking to no one.

Sicario defies this tradition. It's a fantastic film, one of the best I've seen this year. It is a film that not only meets my impossible to define, solipsistic expectations, but it, more importantly, it is a film that is as good, if not better, than the collection of talent behind it. The end result is a film that is as horrifying and compelling as anything you will see in 2015.

A shorthand description of Sicario would pit it as Zero Dark Thirty* meets The Counselor (but if The Counselor was good). It's a nihilistic procedural that collides with reality. In this case we follow FBI door kicker Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she is recruited into the War on Drugs. The film also stars Josh Brolin as a suspiciously laconic OGA spook and Benicio del Toro, who seems to have channeled all of his typical scenery chewing into being as imposing as possible. Along with Macer's partner played by Daniel Kaluuya**, the team charges headlong into the underworld of Mexican (and American) crime.

As you can imagine, things go poorly for everyone.

This is a movie that begins with the discovery of over forty bodies packed into the drywall of a cartel-owned house. It doesn't let up from there on out. Sicario is a film that manages to use this setting without exploiting it for shock value. The desecrated bodies that hang from Ciudad Juarez's freeways are not titillation, they're facts of life.

Few movies embraces Werner Herzog's concept that "The poet must not avert his eyes" as well as this one does. To show what the current war on drugs looks like is sure to turn off many and hopefully piss off a lot of other people, but it's a vision that works. The story requires its characters to walk through this underworld and, like us, they walk out changed. And maybe not for the better.

One of the reasons Sicario stands out as a film about drugs is that unlike Savages or Scarface, it's a movie that nails the double-think of the War on Drugs. In order to beat brutes, we must become brutes. In order to stop crime, we have to let it carry on. In order to bring things to light we have to hide them. It's a film with all of the glamor and sheen of a head on collision. And each collision is couched inside of a thrilling, perfectly put together action sequence. You can have your nihilism and eat it too.

It reminds me of Zero Dark Thirty, not because of the driven female lead or the deadly bearded men running around in military kit. Both are films that steadfastly refuse to give you an answer. It simply shows you. These are the facts. Here is what a human being suffocated and stuffed into a wall looks like. This is what your government is willing to do for the sake of. . . justice? This is what happens to a man who has lost everything. No judgment, no music cues, no twists just the facts. It isn't a film that is looking to meet you half-way, which is why I like it so much.

Another bit of grounding in the film is Emily Blunt's performance. I would say she was a revelation if it wasn't already clear that she's one of the coolest actors in the business. She's the female Tom Hardy, which is to say that Tom Hardy is the male Emily Blunt and that I would watch them both in any movie that they appear in. Also they should both be James Bond***.

If you haven't seen her in Live. Die. Repeat, All You Need is Kill, The Edge of Tomorrow, you should. It's the best video game movie ever made and she's the best thing about it. Sicario is a very different kind of a film, but she carries it in the same way that Tom Cruise carries The Edge of Tomorrow. She has charisma. As bad as things get in this movie, as abused as she may be, you want to hang out with her while she is going through this. As much as she carries you through this film, she also carries the burden of the story in a way that is somehow mundane to the core, yet heroic in a way that all lost causes are.

Drugs are all around us and as a culture, as a species, we still don't seem any closer with grappling it today than when we did, well, ever. Beyond being entertaining, Sicario is a way to digest this complex subject in some way. That's what great art does. It leaves us with something more interesting than answers.

Twenty minutes into Sicario, we see Blunt's Kate Macer washing the results of a particularly brutal SWAT raid on a house. That is a thesis statement of the entire film. It's what you'll want walking out of the film or maybe you'll agree with Kate later in the film “I need a drink.”

Amen to that.

Sicario isn't exactly a fun movie. It's packed with tension, it's thrilling in places, and even manages a few laughs, but it isn't fun. It doesn't provide answers or edification. It points its lens at the Abyss for two hours and let's the camera roll. Sicario deserves to be seen, not because it's an uncompromising look into the War on Drugs, but because it manages to be, on the one hand, suffocating and heartless, and on the other, completely and utterly gripping. It's a film that needs to be seen. No, it's more than that. Sicario a film that needs to be witnessed.


* Coincidentally, Kathryn Bigelow produced a documentary about the border and vigilantism called Carteland this year. Obviously something is in the air and it's not just Don Winslow, who I imagine burns his typewriters after every novel to "free the demon.

** Oh, he's British? Of course he's fucking British.

***And also Idris Elba. Rotating Bonds. Can you dig it?

James Kislingbury is a writer, a podcaster, and DAREs to be drug free. You can check out his podcast A Quality Interruption here. You can support his creative endeavors on Pateron here. You can follow him on Twitter here. There are no wrong answers here.