In Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” the border is not a mere setting. It is the very subject of the film.
And not just the U.S.-Mexico border, either. Of course, that line serves as a shorthand for a number of the film’s dialectical battles: chaos vs. order, civility vs. barbarism, domestic vs. foreign. But none of these provide any easy demarcations like the fence does; these divisions prove far more permeable.
The uncertainty, and even dread, that comes with such free exchange gets echoed in every aspect of “Sicario.” It starts in the script and gets amplified in the direction, the acting and even the photography. Cinematographer Roger Deakins tells the story primarily through two contrasting shots: hovering aerial landscapes and tightly-held close-ups. The first showcases a vast, unfeeling terrain that dwarfs all human activity. The second, though a smaller canvas, provides an equally robust commentary on the men and woman traversing the territory.
Though mere chess pieces in a much larger board game, the minute details of how each characters processes information and suppresses emotions provide a second layer of story running throughout “Sicario.” No face receives more attention than that of Emily Blunt, who plays the film’s protagonist, FBI agent Kate Macer. Practically every scene in the film happens twice, first as it unfolds and then again as reflected through Kate’s face.
Blunt’s performance is screen acting at its finest. Villeneuve and Deakins maximize ability of the camera to pick up the smallest of twitches and motions, which might otherwise be imperceptible to the naked eye. Rarely has the quiver of a lip as it gulps down the smoke from a cigarette registered so much. Blunt makes her character the farthest thing from a blank slate, ensuring that each infinitesimal shift of her face reveals her fast-racing mind. To that end, Kate’s big, explosive scene unfolds in a shot taken from a great distance where her emotions remain obscured. She’s a compass, steadfast but still a little shaky.
The primacy of Kate’s responses also helps to align the viewer with her gaze in “Sicario.” Lazier filmmakers might have seen her character, practically the only female presence in the film, and use her gender as a lazy metaphor for being an outsider. (Actually, plenty would have much rather just turned the lead into a man.) Kate stands apart from the others on her mission in many ways besides being a woman: she’s the lone domestic agent among a CIA team, a moralist among relativists and operates with imperfect information whereas everyone else seems a page ahead of her. Prioritizing her perspective neither tokenizes her gender nor discards its importance.
Kate previously patrolled the front lines of the War on Drugs, taking on low-level (but nonetheless dangerous) cartel operatives in Arizona. After she survives one perilous encounter, Josh Brolin’s plainspoken CIA officer Matt Graver pulls her up to the big leagues on an interagency task force to deliver justice across the border. This side of the battle requires significant adjustments to how Kate views the conflict, even though their enemy remains the same. Bringing about defeat necessitates working with some shady operators, including Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick, a man with ambiguous alliances and alarming ambivalence throughout the operation.
Be it the ominous slow push of Deakins’ camera, the grumbling drawl of horns from Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score or the meticulous pace of Taylor Sheridan’s script, every moment of “Sicario” keeps the tension building and the dread rising. Each component of the film works to illuminate the binaries and oppositions so crucial to understanding the situation along the border, only to end by dwelling on the grey area that drives quarrels over this multifaceted mess. Do not come here looking for easy answers, for they are not found in the story or in the protagonist. And even if Kate were to stumble upon some kind of solution in the film, Villeneuve would surely have cast doubt on it. A- /