Sicario, the new drug war drama directed by Denis Villeneuve, is delivered with the certainty that it has all sorts of profound things to offer about the dire state of the world. It is serious and intent, a brave face with just the merest hint of a quiver. Unfortunately, despite it’s stalwart intentions and clear self-regard, Sicario is a movie without much to actually say, a problem compounded by an overly stylized approach that makes its relative emptiness become almost unbearable. Written by Taylor Sheridan, the film purports to examine the cross-border drug trade with a barbed focus on the widespread corruption it cultivates on both side of the line of justice. Instead, it buzzes around like a swarm of narcoleptic bees, amounting to little more than a marauding din.
Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI agent who the film introduces when she’s on a raid in a bleak Arizona neighborhood. The goal is to rescue hostages, but the home they crash through holds far more heinous secrets (which are apparently held behind some remarkable airtight drywall). The brutal awfulness of this particular raid site helps to bring Kate to the attention of some other agents of unspecified alliance, led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who recruit her into a special operation meant to get to the overseeing source of the drug trade running roughshod over the border states. Though she’s clearly skeptical, Kate signs on, believing its a chance to bring the law down upon the perpetrators of the mayhem she’s just witnessed.
A slow plod through predictable plot turns follows. Villeneuve seems to believe that great suspense comes from multiplying establishing shots until it begins to feel like he simply couldn’t choose between all the coverage he filmed and finally decided to find a way to include it all. The great Roger Deakins serves as cinematographer, and some of his keen eye and creative lighting choices gives the film a little welcome texture, but too often the film gets mired in heavily styled choices that are distracting rather than alluring or insightful. There is an overabundance of scenes, for example, that take place in the moments when day trades places with night. It provides something interesting for Deakins to do, I suppose, but it lends the film a fussiness that winds up highlighting how little wisdom or surprise is contained in the storytelling.
As usual, Blunt does a nice job, though the haphazard construction of the character prevents her from going as deep as she could. Kate shifts not out of thoughtful narrative progression, but to suit the immediate needs of the story. She remains engaged in situations she despises for the slenderest of reasoning, often doing so with a nonsensical detachment from the pragmatism and ethical capability that are established as defining traits of the character and then reinforced anytime the filmmakers want to inject a fresh dose of grim moralizing. Even that quality is commonly contradicted, though not from a worthwhile attempt to introduce believable uncertainty given the complicated topics running through the film. Instead, the film lacks focus, exemplified by the occasional indifference to maintaining its dedication to Kate a protagonist. It is committed to her point of view until it abruptly isn’t, a choice that provides no honest suggestion of a purposefully adventurous approach to narrative construction, but instead betrays an indifference to the integrity of its own construction. Sicario does itself in.