What I’m about to write, what you’re about to read, is going to sound like a strange kind of praise for a film; not quite damning with faint praise, but more along the lines of something being so bad it’s good. What I think is not that at all, it’s what makes this film worth making and why I’m recommending it to people. What I liked about this film is that it’s rather amorphous and meandering, without what you might call a compelling structure informing its design. This is precisely what I haven’t liked about quite a few movies recently, with the exemplar being Inherent Vice. The difference in a way is the strength of the developing genre concept.
I didn’t like Inherent Vice because I think it tried to lift the energy and iconography of Hammett and Chandler and undermining it by making the central figure half-baked instead of hard-boiled. In the attempt, I felt it tripped over itself several times because it neither retained nor rejected the core structure of detection. We’ve seen semi-stoner versions of Marlowe, for example, in The Long Goodbye, which challenged Chandler’s Courtly aspirations by degrading Marlowe, but which ultimately retained the steely core of the character in the final act. And we’ve had the full-stoner treatment of the detective in The Big Lebowski, where the Dude is trapped unwillingly in a classic hard-boiled escapade, but ultimately doesn’t let it make him tough. Inherent Vice tried to find a middle way, but Doc was never tested, the situation never fully developed, and nothing was ever resolved. The mystery he was embroiled in was superficial and despite hints and allegations never went as dark as noir aught to. The shreds of genre in which it enfolded itself created a tangle of genre expectations for which Paul Thomas Anderson had no strong counter-narrative; whereas The Big Lebowski successively and successfully rejects the tenets of the hard-boiled narrative at every opportunity.
Sicario exists in the marginal space of the emerging genre of the War On Drugs. The most obvious comparison that’s been made a lot is with Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, but I think we can look at vigilante fantasies like Robert Rodriguez’ Mariachi trilogy, Oliver Stone’s Savages, or large parts of the hazy melange that is James Ellroy’s second-best novel American Tabloid (in case you’re wondering, the best is White Jazz). All of these tales have a certain logic to them, about a cycle of activity: demand, manufacture, transport, supply, expand. We see this cycle played out in detail in Breaking Bad, where Walter White develops his product, then looks for distribution channels, then is forced to expand his scope of criminal activity. Sicario ignores all of that, and uses none of it as story fodder, which makes it a film about the war on drugs with a hole in its centre. In effect, it rejects what has become a cosy and familiar narrative and perspective on a catastrophic problem. It is free to tell its own story, and form its own expectations as it goes. It is not always perfectly successful in finding its own unique ideas, but it never for one minute felt like a film I’d seen before, while continually feeling at the edge of something familiar. This means it has the highly valued quality of feeling at least somewhat original.
Perhaps the clearest indication that the film is taking it’s own path is in having Emily Blunt as the lead, in a role which is feminine, but which in any structural sense feels very much like it could easily have been a male role. She and her partner don’t fall in love. She is never caught out by overt sexism, and never “plays the gender card”, as an excuse or a reason or a point of difference. She is a woman and on the whole the film is silent about that fact, treating it silently as something not requiring particular comment. Now, that’s not to say the film is feminist – it doesn’t have an agenda of showing that a woman can be as tough as a man, it has an agenda of showing the things its interested in, the story motifs and decisions it thinks are important, and it’s got enough to do without contributing to an orthogonal political axis. Emily Blunt happens to play the lead, which means that the central assassination sequence happens to have a man as a kind of homme fatale, but there are dozens of versions of this sequence with the gender inverted, and the fact she’s a woman means nothing to the way it works.
This wilful aversion and evasion of familiar story beats and semiotic structures has made some parts of the film difficult even for some critics that in my youthful arrogance I think should know better. Interspersed with Kate Macer’s story is the story of Silvio, a Juarez state policeman. He is shown living his life, playing with his kid, working nights and, oh, smuggling “product”. The main action picks him up deep in the 4th act set-piece, and he’s casually killed a little later. The general feeling was that this was a fairly trivial pay-off for our emotional investment in him. By showing us his life, are we supposed to care about him, and hence feel tragic at his death? Maybe; it’s a real possibility. Are we supposed to be drilling down into the life in Juarez and hence build sympathy for the people hit hardest, in the way Benecio del Toro’s Javier did in Traffic? Again, it’s plausible. But actually, all of those interpretations really miss the point, which is to simple symmetry with Kate Macer, who’s an absolutely similarly clueless and disposable pawn, used and discarded in exactly the same way as Silvio, simply caught up and chewed up in the meat-grinder of the war itself. Silvio provides coverage for the product he transports around, and Macer does the same – her product is just CIA hard-asses instead of cocaine. He is no more corrupt than she, and no freer to choose his life. He is incidental because ultimately she is incidental. It’s something of a numbers game.
Sicario is a bold and well-crafted film that’s stylish and original. It’s politics are dubious, its characters moreso, and its moral centre ambiguous at best. It’s the best movie I’ve seen anywhere near it’s supposed genre that I’ve seen in a very long time.