Cannes 2015: Does “Sicario” mean frustration?

We were looking forward impatiently to Denis Villeneuve’s new film , but his sicario/executioner appears to be carrying blanks …

Despite his experience in other Cannes sections (“Cosmos” and “Polytechnique” were screened in the Directors’ Fortnight, his “Un 32 août sur terre” in Un Certain Regard, while his short film “Next Floor” won the Canal+ award in 2008), Canadian director Denis Villeneuve was first selected in the Official Competition Section of the 68th International Cannes Film Festival with “Sicario”. A police (im)moral drama about the dirty war against the Mexican cartels, which have destroyed every sense of lawful order on both sides of the US border. Moved from “Incendies”, fascinated by the strange universe of “Enemy” and impressed by the fullness of the characters in “Prisoners” (Villeneuve’s US debut) we expected much more. Unfortunately, Villeneuve’s “Sicario” has let us down.

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Emily Blunt plays Kate Macy, an idealistic FBI agent, trained in hostage rescue missions. However, one rescue raid in a house in Phoenix, Arizona does not lead her to immigrant hostages, but instead to a mass grave. A place where group torture and executions / retaliations are taking place by Sonora cartel – the most powerful drug trafficking cartel that is run by a “ghost”, Fausto Alarcon. In Mexico, Alarcon strengthens his authority ruthlessly by decapitating his victims’ corpses, hanging them from bridges, sending thus a strong signal to his enemies. In US, agent Macy finds 42 corpses built in the house walls. Along with the victims, Macy also loses people from her own team, who are killed while trying to to open a booby-trapped door.

Investigations into the incident brings her before Matt Graver, a mysterious Ministry of Justice “consultant” (played by Josh Brolin), who offers her the opportunity to volunteer in his team. As the US side is “sweeping” the blood from the floor of this war, Graver offers Macy a position beside him in the trenches. Macy accepts and soon finds herself under the constant supervision of Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former Colombian prosecutor, who, after the execution of his family by Alarcon, has taken the law into his own hands. Literally.

Once the team lands in the notorious and chillingly violent Ciudad Juárez, with the mission to flush out and execute Alarcon, Macy realises that she had no idea of what she was getting into. No law, no legal procedure or protocol is followed. Violence is dealt with violence, torture with torture, police and murderers becoming equally criminal.

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Villeneuve directs his scenes with rhythm, with an addictive atmosphere and suspense. Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins portrays the risk and wilderness of the landscapes with equal skill. The cast consists of actors able to convey the complexity of the (anti)heroes with dirty hands.

Why then the executioner (this is what “Sicario” means in Mexico) shoots himself in the foot? Not because the film is dark, relentlessly violent or because Taylor Sheridan’s (starring in the TV series “Sons of Anarchy”) scenario is complex and confusing. We are in favour of the complexity of such scenarios, since a well-laid out mosaic of characters, entangled in the cartel’s web, is in itself a method to show cinematically the  size of corruption and of the deeply-rooted, invincible drug status quo.

The complex and demanding viewing of a film narrative is one thing. The fragmented mess, however, is something completely different. Contrary to Steven Sonderbergh’s “Traffic” which, fifteen years ago, created its sticky web in such a way that came round a full, tight circle and gave its characters depth and meaning, “Sicario” seems to wander spasmodically from event to event, with smug narcissism and the self-confidence that the less it brings its plot together, the more “honest” it will look.

On the contrary though, the disconnectedness (which has nothing to do with the way of “Enemy”) makes us not believe in any  of the characters even for a minute (the great triumph of “Prisoners”’ psychological diatribe) and in that of Emily Blunt even less, who initially seems to embark on the promise of a dynamic heroine only to end up in the cliché sidekick of a male macho world. Benicio Del Toro is also a great disappointment in a role that could be his big comeback to something essential, dark and complex, but who also ends up being a sketchy and predictable Hollywood vigilante.

Read more of our Cannes 2015 reviews here.