Friday, November 06, 2015

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve)

The hired assassin's trade

Denis Villeneuve's latest film begins with an FBI raid to rescue what are supposed to be drug hostages in an empty house in Chandler, Arizona; the raid ends with two officers dead, and the discovery of the mutilated corpses of men and women, wrapped in plastic, sealed up in the walls--a grim and silent reminder to Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) that war is being waged with unprecedented violence but elsewhere. These are just detritus, leftovers from past battles. 

Macer expresses the desire to get those responsible (for the bodies, for her agents); she's apparently never heard of the old warning about wishes because she's quickly attached to a strike force of murky origins (an officer named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) wears flip-flops to high level meetings; another named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) snoozes quietly through mission briefings) and even murkier objectives (a trip to El Paso, Texas suddenly turns into a wire-tense mission to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico).

How realistic is this scenario? Is the USA willing to move so aggressively through a foreign nation? Okay scrub that--are they able to move so through a foreign nation successfully and without any fallout? Villeneuve dismisses all skepticism with the unrelenting tone of his action sequences--not so much the assaultive style of a Paul Greengrass, trying to equate documentary realism with the supposed verite of a handheld camera, but a magisterial glide, a kind of unblinking gaze (with understated but precise editing) that suggests what's going to happen onscreen is inevitable, there's no avoiding it. Macer finds herself wound tighter and tighter as the mission (a fleet of black Chevrolet Impalas barreling through the U.S.-Mexico border) is joined by Mexican Ford pickups mounted with M429 machine guns; collects a hooded prisoner at a Mexican military base; encounters a traffic jam on the journey back to the Estados Unidos (along the way sleepy-eyed Alejandro casually points out two carloads of armed gunmen zeroing in on their fleet); ends up in a US military base where--more for our benefit than unwitting Macer's--said prisoner is locked in an interrogation room and sleepy Alejandro, now smiling widely, drags a five-gallon water jug to where the prisoner, not smiling, sits handcuffed and waiting helplessly. 

Equally effective and perhaps imbued with a touch of poetry are the soaring overhead shots, of Juarez, of El Paso, that look gorgeous yes but turn out to have a thematic point: El Paso's neatly scrubbed streets shine in stark contrast with Juarez's urban sprawl--you tingle with pleasure at the orderly grid patterns of a United States suburb, then bristle when Villeneuve switches over to the chaotic capillaries of a Mexican border town. In between: the smoothly curving hills and sparse shrubs of the border desert, uncaring of all the drama happening at its edges.

The film invites comparison with Zero Dark Thirty, maybe the last successfully concluded US foray into a foreign land to be translated so vividly to the big screen; unlike Zero, where both film and director consciously assumed a 'no comment' stance on the subject of torture Sicario does, not just on torture but on the many sins the government committed while waging this (Fantastical? Plausible? Prophetic?) escalation on the War on Drugs: torture works, the film says, but those who inflict it are damned--and so are we by implication because we benefit, we let it happen.* Not perhaps the message we want to hear but the filmmakers are at least upfront and unambiguous on the issue. 

*(How else to account for Macer's sudden lapse of intelligence late in the film, when she threatens to expose Graver's and Alejandro's shenanigans? "That would not be wise," Graver growls, and I for one agree--exposure would genuinely threaten the whole operation, and should she be informing him of her one effective move before actually doing it?). 

Less obviously the film works as a companion piece to Ridley Scott's The Counselor, a considerably more literary work (and considerably funnier, no small thing) thanks to a script by novelist Cormac McCarthy, who doesn't unfold the full extent of his sensibility as dole out as much of that sensibility as he thinks the screen deserves (there's a difference). Hence nihilism and despair run rampant The Counselor, the same way they do in McCarthy's earlier No Country for Old Men (but not in his superior The Road--the novel not the movie, which in my opinion is considerably softened; there the horror is leavened, modulated, strengthened by an equally powerful vision of love). Sicario is wrought in a similar, easily cynical spirit: only what wolves do matters, all else is the effort of impotent sheep. A powerful message, but ultimately limited. 

Finally Sicario's eponymous character with his days-old beard growth and centuries-old eyes reminds me of another far more haunting character, Joel Torre's Detective Juan Mijares, in Lav Diaz's no-budget epic Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2000). Both bear heavy sins, both are involved in the War on Drugs (cocaine for Alejandro, shabu (crystal meth) for Mijares), both atone for sins in their deliberately gravid way; in fact when I see Alejandro prowling the border tunnels in the former I can't help but recall the casual grace of Mijares' stride through the streets of Jersey City in the latter (also can't help but wonder if del Toro saw Torre's performance beforehand). Laid out side-by-side, Sicario's trajectory seems strangely optimistic, despite the studied pose: they are damned, we are damned, but at least we're all doing something about the War on Drugs, if only stabilizing a chaotic situation.

Diaz's vision is bleaker: some mysteries are unsolvable, some crimes irredeemable, some sins unforgivable no matter how far we travel, or suffer, or struggle. They are damned, we are damned, and all the dirty tactics and shiny hardware in the world aren't ever going to pull us out into safety.

First published in Businessworld, 10.30.15

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