Denis Villeneuve’s movies are the kinds of movies that critics tend to describe as “Oscar-worthy” or “the best of the year,” but they’re also the types of movies I’d guarantee those same critics never bother to watch more than once, or even with the sound on. A lion’s share of that praise is mostly due to the fact that Villeneuve’s films are beautifully photographed by the Coen Brothers’ DP of choice Roger Deakins. Deakins’ cinematography in “Prisoners” and “Sicario” is so evocative and so artful that it artificially enhances the actual quality of Villeneuve’s projects. Cognitive dissonance surrounds the work of Villeneuve. Story wise, “Sicario” feels like a particularly uninspired episode of an FXX series you’re only vaguely aware of, but Deakins’ camera work is so inventive and frequently awe-inspiring that “Sicario” seems way better than it actually is. After all, a film that looks as good as “Sicario” couldn’t be heavy-handed or inert, right?
In “Sicario” (which, incidentally, means ‘hit-man’ in Spanish) an FBI agent specializing in hostage negotiations (Emily Blunt) leads a raid against a depressing Arizona tract house that just happens to have dozens of corpses sealed within its walls. This discovery leads to her being invited to join an interagency operation lead by a perpetually smirking ‘Department of Defense’ consultant (Josh Brolin). Blunt is told that her participation will lead to the downfall of the Mexican drug cartel responsible for the Arizona tract house massacre, but this appears to be one of the many honeyed lies that are repeatedly fed to Blunt throughout the film. From there, Blunt is marginalized and ignored by her colleagues who mostly keep her in the dark regarding their true motivations. Why, for example, does Brolin tell her she’s going to El Paso, Texas when she’s really being flown to Juarez, Mexico? And who is Benicio Del Toro’s character, and what’s his mysterious connection to Brolin and his “operation?”
A self-important tautology unconvincingly masquerading as a thriller, “Sicario” is a sluggishly paced affair with a central mystery that isn’t too difficult to unravel. When we’re first introduced to Brolin’s seedy, good ‘ol boy character, he’s wearing flip-flops in the middle of an FBI meeting and treating Blunt with the bemused distance of a patronizing Uncle. It’s clear that Brolin is bad news, so it’s not exactly shocking when it turns out his character is waterboarding suspects and firing randomly into crowds of innocent civilians. But still, there needs to be a central mystery, because without it you won’t be able to blow everybody’s mind with a big reveal. Never mind that the big reveal doesn’t make very much sense, invalidates one character’s involvement in the operation and basically functions as a way for screenwriter Taylor Sheridan to hammer home the film’s already obvious message about America’s implicit involvement in Mexican drug cartels for those who either suffered serious head trauma before they entered the theatre or arrived late. It’s big and it’s a reveal, and it looks really good when photographed by Roger Deakins. Isn’t that enough?
It isn’t. Not that it matters. Pretty equals great cinema, apparently. Ignore the shrill proselytizing and check out that totally, wickedly awesome gun fight at the U.S./Mexican Border. Did you see that one dude’s neck tats? It was sick! And hey, just ignore the fact that most of the characters are undeveloped and let your eyeballs absorb Deakins’ innovative use of shadow in this midnight raid sequence!
Like the rest of Villeneuve’s highly overrated projects, “Sicario” amounts to less than a handful of decent set-pieces. I wonder if all of the people who claim “Sicario” is the best movie released this year will even remember it a month from now.
Mike Sullivan is a movie reviewer for Weekender. Movie reviews appear weekly in Weekender.
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Weekender Rating: WW