We’ve heard many times that the so-called “War on Drugs” really is an actual war. Traffic, a Best Picture nominee from way back in 2000, remains the cinematic authority on the topic, and probably had more influence on the aesthetic of modern movies than almost any other film. Nowadays, plenty of dramas and thriller look like Traffic. Back then, only Traffic did.
Sicario, the latest film to take us south of the border to the war zone, shares a lot of DNA with its predecessor in terms of its look and feel — not to mention one of its stars, Benicio Del Toro — and a focus on of good cops feeling powerless against the forces of evil, weighing the pros and cons of compromising their values. Sicario might be the first of the films to tackle this subject, however, that actually feels like a war movie.
The film’s unsettling percussive score by Johann Johannsson is our first clue. There are drums beating constantly underneath the action in this thriller from Denis Villeneuve, who takes the bleak dread of Prisoners and Enemy to a new height (or is that a new low?) in Sicario. It’s rare to mention a film’s score before its plot, stars, or director, but it’s as major a player in Sicario as anyone else. The music raises our pulses during several ultra-tense action scenes, as a good thriller score should do, but I also think we’re meant to hear these war drums as a call to arms the same way these characters do. Thousands of people are being senselessly murdered by unseen, seemingly unstoppable forces. The various law enforcement officers in Sicario know they stand little chance of defeating this enemy in total, but also know that if they don’t fight back, no one else will. And it can only get worse. In their hearts and heads, the drums of war beat constantly, just as they do on the soundtrack.
Emily Blunt stars as FBI agent Kate Macer, who is persuaded to “volunteer” for a mysterious mission that aims to cripple the Mexican drug cartel. The film’s opening scene sees Kate and her task force raiding a home in Arizona, where it is suspected that hostages are being held, only to discover something much, much worse inside.
Kate must answer to Matt Graves (Josh Brolin), supposedly of the Department of Defense, though she suspects he’s actually CIA, along with his “partner” Alejandro (Del Toro), whose origins are even more shrouded in secrecy. Graves won’t tell Kate what their true objective is, and the film doesn’t let us in on their secrets for a long while either. We know what Kate knows, which is not much. She’s just a soldier.
Eventually, Kate’s superiors take her to ground zero — Juarez, Mexico, the kind of place where seeing naked, decapitated bodies hanging under overpasses is routine. Kate and her team enter the country in swiftly moving snack of black vehicles, not stopping to present their passports or for any other formalities, because their task exists outside the law. It’s similar to a scene like “Ride of the Valkyries” in Apocalypse Now, or any depiction of troops heading into battle. Rules don’t exist here, except the rules set by the cartel. There’s a very real danger that Kate and her teammates could be killed at any moment, just as in combat. It’s easy to see why Kate feels the urge to fight — everything the Juarez cartel touches turns into Hell on Earth.
Watching Sicario the first time around is an almost unbearably tense experience. As in the rest of Villeneuve’s body of work, oppressive dread hangs over every frame. We witness a few highly unpleasant moments; what happens in this film’s denouement could be troublesome in a slicker Hollywood product, but Sicario earns its misery by establishing the stakes of this war. As long as people continue using drugs, there will be someone to sell drugs to them. These drugs will come from places like Colombia and Mexico, and the price paid by the people who live there will be steep. According to Graves, intervention by the United States is mandatory, or more and more bodies will keep piling up on both sides of the border — what they’re doing circumnavigates much of the law, but again: this is war.Kate is our eyes and ears as we enter this world and witness the many horrors even she is stunned by. It’s not crucial that the lead of Sicario be a woman, but it does create an interesting dynamic. Matt and Alejandro have no respect for Kate’s role on their team, which may or may not be because she’s a woman. Kate is out of her depth in dealing with the horrors of Juarez, but not because she’s a woman — because that’s not her field, and because Juarez is fucking terrifying.
Kate’s morals butt up against Matt and Alejandro’s elusive interests, and she is visibly terrified through most of the movie. (Who wouldn’t be?) In some senses, this is behavior we’d think of as “typical” for a female character. Matt is almost disturbingly cavalier about his mission, seemingly shrugging at the fact that he could die at any moment. Without giving too much away, Alejandro reveals himself to be a force to be reckoned with, to say the least. In some movies, it would be problematic that the lone female is relegated to the weak “good cop” role, but this film also takes the time to fully develop her as a character. Sicario is well aware of its own gender politics, without drawing too much attention to them. Kate’s gender surely has something to do with her role as the pawn in this mission, but not everything. Ultimately, Sicario has its female protagonist wrestle with morality in a way that is probably somewhat different than, but not less equal to, the way a male protagonist would. At this moment in time, that’s probably more interesting than presenting her as a badass “tough girl” who’s just one of the boys.
Beyond Traffic, Sicario reminded me of two other films — Silence Of The Lambs and Zero Dark Thirty. The former has been pored over in gender studies in cinema classes, with Clarice Starling emerging as something of an icon for capable women in a male-dominated workplace, while the latter drops its female protagonist into a war zone she’s not quite ready for, just like Sicario. These films all feature women in the FBI or CIA struggling to prove their competence against men who’d prefer them to play nice and pipe down, though thanks to the work of its predecessors, Sicario is less concerned with having Kate “prove herself” and be the one who saves the day. It’s not a “take that, boys!” kind of movie. (All three films also have memorable and significant night vision sequences. I don’t know what to make of that connection.) The cinematography is courtesy of the legendary Roger Deakins, and it shows.At the opposite end of the spectrum is the new Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge Of Spies, which gives its few female characters absolutely nothing to do, in large part because when it comes to high-stakes international politics, women weren’t given a whole lot to do back in 1960 either. Amy Ryan, a powerhouse actress capable of great things, is totally sidelined in the “supportive wife” role. Bridge Of Spies is definitely a boys’ club, but again, so was 1960.
Bridge Of Spies is comparable to Sicario only in the sense that both explore U.S. intervention in global affairs, and it’s kind of interesting to think about how our role in such matters has changed (or not changed) from 1960 to 2015. Tom Hanks is a lawyer who begrudgingly represents a British man, living in Brooklyn, accused of being a spy. (And he is a spy, as the movie lets us know in a quietly masterful opening sequence.) James B. Donovan’s defense of Rudolf Abel takes up the first third or so of this film, which has a knowingly Capra-esque, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington feel to it (and who better to cast as a Jimmy Stewart type than Tom Hanks?). It’s really just an extended prologue for the real story, though, when Donovan is asked to covertly travel to Berlin to facilitate the exchange of an American spy captured in Russia for Abel. The governments themselves can’t be involved, so Donovan agrees to perform this very dangerous task on behalf of his country.
Bridge Of Spies is the ultimate 21st century Spielberg movie, nestling right up alongside titles like Munich, War Horse, and Lincoln. Janusz Kamiński shoots it as beautifully as he shoots every Spielberg movie, and the maestro is (still) at the top of his form as a director, composing shots and sequences like no one else. As with so many of his films, this one features a family man on a moral mission — if Hanks’ character were anymore decent, he’d be playing Jesus Christ himself. The climactic sequence scrapes up some tension, just in time for a slightly too long, slightly too sentimental ending (a Spielberg staple), but mostly this is a talky film with grand political ideas like Lincoln, though the script also contains plenty of wry humor to offset the earnestness (perhaps because it was co-written by the Coen brothers). It’s all pretty great, but somehow the flawlessly executed pieces don’t add up to a totally gripping whole — perhaps because the story’s scope is so massive. Bridge Of Spies gives us a grand total of three spies (or suspected spies) to care about, with about half the movie set in Germany just as the Berlin Wall is going up, plus all those Cold War shenanigans. Aside from the tense scene in which American student Frederic Pryor is harassed and imprisoned by German soldiers, Bridge Of Spies doesn’t generate a palpable sense of danger for its characters. (In that sense, it reminded me of the very similar Argo.) It’s not a fatal flaw, but spending more time with the Americans imprisoned in Germany and Russia might have raised the stakes and gotten us more invested in the outcome of Donovan’s dealings. Donovan continually states that he “just wants to go home,” and after a while, it starts to feel like that really is the extent of the stakes of this movie.
Both Sicario and Bridge Of Spies are beautiful to behold, thanks to their unparalleled directors of photography, and masterfully directed by one incredibly promising filmmaker, relatively new on the scene, and one of the all time greats. In their own ways, both speak volumes about current events. I’m not about to surmise how Sicario should be interpreted regarding the Mexican-American border’s role in recent political debates; nor does Bridge Of Spies‘ sentiment about how foreign prisoners should be treated feel like a topic that needs exploring in a review of the film. One is shockingly violent and bleak as hell, the other a throwback to more optimistic times, and you can probably guess which one ends much more happily than the other. *