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Sicario - An Absent Protagonist Hinders an Otherwise Fervent Cinematic Experience

HaydnSpurrell HaydnSpurrell Matching a sinister soundtrack with a gruesome catalyst at launch, Sicario hauntingly navigates a world in which the dangers are within the walls, literally hiding in plain sight. It's black water paint on an already tainted canvas, dripping onto the floorboards and telling us that our worst nightmares are ready to sneak in at any moment.

Emily Blunt plays Kate, an FBI agent who is thrust into both a horrifying discovery while on a hostage operation, and then into the world of the cartel. Surrounded by powerful and morally twisted men, all with military and/or strategic field experience, this is less an invitation on a tour than it is a torturous drop into the terrifying unknown. Kate's eyes are narrowed (and often sleep deprived) and she is without a doubt well outside her comfort zone. So are we.

Dramatic analogies and startling imagery inhabit the film, one drenched in so much threat it exemplifies modern social anxieties about the threats that sneak their way into our territories, closer and closer every day. The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve, whose ambition is met only by his clear fascination in the dark corners of human nature.

This world creeps into every single aspect of Kate's life, haunting all of her waking hours. When she goes out to a pub around midway through the film, we see her smiling and dancing. By now, we know that's not going to last, nor is it probably what it seems. By the time we reach the third act turn, the film has built itself to a suitable height, and as the soldiers walk into twilight, silhouettes in the fore of the setting sun, Sicario prepares its audience for something startling.

Images are often confronting. Whether it's bodies left strewn along a busy, civilised highway, or children playing soccer before being disrupted by nearby gunfire, the cinematography leaves a lasting impression. There is poignancy in everything we see, and everything we don't. The opening scene, with the corpses between the walls, is only the beginning. But it's a hell of a way to prepare us for what's to come.

Occupying much of the screen time with Blunt is Benicio del Toro as Alejandro, and Josh Brolin as Matt. The pair are suspicious, clearly dangerous, and very much in the corner of ours and Kate's eyes from beginning to end. Both actors play powerful roles, completely willing to venture into the dastardly nature of their characters without any cease in professionalism. Del Toro's presence soaks every scene he's in, and even when he is absent his essence in the film is always there. Alejandro represents the mysterious nature of the film's simmering messages.

Blunt's performance, too, is stellar. She inhabits the tortured soul with such conviction, the performance is sold. Her downward spiral almost falls too far for the film's own good, but it maintains its sight on a story that instigates subtle change instead of becoming a trite character study.

By the third act, the story gets away from Kate. It becomes far more complex, delving far too deep for her to keep up with. Alejandro takes the stage and becomes central to the story, but he never feels like the central character. When Kate becomes second to the plot, the film goes a length too far with its positing of her as the 'other'.

Her role as an outsider to the horrors within the drug trade pulls her away, and any emotional investment subsides as the film runs down its remaining time. When she returns, it's in a similar state of decay that she spends much of the two hours in. Where her story ends is ambiguous only in a way that we're unclear of how she can return from the trauma she's experience.

As a pawn, she's written confidently. Being a step behind the plot ramps up the intrigue, the sense of danger. But as the lead in this gritty tale, she falls away. The emphasis on the men in this world perhaps harms the only woman's staying power. The script seems to have lost its ability to hold her in the story. Did it become too difficult to have her play an integral part in the film's ultimate climax?

Despite it, the film leaves a deep imprint, an uncomfortable resonance long after the credits role. Fears of terrorism, of drug pandemics, of strangers who may or may not be dangerous. There are so many more themes Sicario juggles, and delivers with astounding confidence. In some ways its second act spends a little too long carrying us through the world and across the borders, taking us sight seeing.

But this patience pays off in the long run. Mastering tension, we wait for a payoff. Occasionally, we get one (as we see on the highway). At other times, we don't; Kate's discovery late in the film is less startling than it perhaps was intended, and her stalled role in the narrative from then on stilts its intentions.

Inhabiting a film with a passive main character is fraught with danger, and stands out as one of Sicario's rare flaws. As a cinematic experience, rich in visual and aural resonance and rife with thought-enticing material, it's one worthy of its focus. It does not shy away from grit or pain or discomfort. It throws a world of horrors straight at our faces, and demands that we, for two hours and longer, pay attention.


Posted in Sicario,

HaydnSpurrell HaydnSpurrell

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