Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Maximiliano Hernández
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 121 min.
Verdict: The most formally accomplished American film of its year. A textbook for genre filmmaking. And I very much want to agree with its politics.
Genre: Thriller, Drama, Action
Before we go into the politics of it all, which frankly could be that it is not a country for women, and which unfortunately will send the PC police into throwing hissy fits, it is worthwhile to look at the technique employed here from an academic perspective. Mr. Villeneuve looks to be an expert director-for-hire, and Sicario is one of those rare films from around now which can be visited and revisited just to study how to capture conversations or movements. It is always fun to break down a scene, to understand why it works the way it works, so that it can be repeated. You see, capturing drama is quite similar to capturing a process – the accumulation of details – and it is satisfying (academically) when a scene can be explained not on the basis of performances but on the basis of its editing (an elitist sentiment, I suppose, or maybe a pretension of analytical prowess). A scene that is simply a sum of its parts is for me a reason for comfort, and the one I would have a jab at breaking down occurs early in the film, after an FBI SWAT raid led by Kate Mercer (Ms. Blunt) on a suspect kidnap house controlled by drug cartels ends up in an explosion killing two of her team members. She is sitting in an office along with her partner Reggie Wayne (Mr. Kaluuya), outside of a meeting room where several older men (the youngest must be only around 40) are having some sort of discussion. The office is wall-to-wall glass see-through partitioning, and we enter this setting via a news report of the explosion on a television screen hanging on one of the walls. We hear the news report, and just as it is about to end, we cut to a POV (over-the-shoulder) shot of Kate looking at the screen, and we now hear no audio.
The glass partitioning might offer “transparency” but it sure as hell isn’t revealing a great deal of information. If you see in the POV shot, there is one glass partitioning in the foreground too, and Mr. Villeneuve provides the next cut looking at Kate and Reggie in a two-shot from within their enclosure. The meeting room is behind them and they cannot hear a word of what is being said. I would want to extend you the liberty of extrapolating this whole glass setting as something of a metaphor for what happens in the film, especially from Kate’s perspective. She sees everything and understands nothing, and just as that is intended to be the disposition of the office, that is probably the objective of the smoke-and-mirrors mission she is about to get into.
We cut back again to the POV shot, but this time around we hear the discussion happening within the room, which Kate obviously cannot hear. All of this happens over a quick 25-30 second period, establishing the setting, which after the prologue-serving explosion, functions as the set-up for the whole narrative. Let us just say that Mr. Tarantino would either have Chapter 1 here, or after the intermission have a Chapter 5, attached to this, and accordingly either label it The Glass Partitioned Office or The Operation of the Glass Partitioned Office.
Kate is called in and introduced and interviewed over a quick couple of minutes and that is not the conversation I am interested in, leaving you to discover it. She comes out and sits beside Reggie, does a quick survey of she still has no idea, and that is when the discussion is done and folks move out, and one of them asks Kate to come in. It is a terribly efficient moment, all built on following the eye-line movements from Kate, and accordingly cutting the room into close-ups (thus revealing the inherent inconsistencies), or aligning them all together (the authority v/s Kate).
Here is the video, and allow this moment to remind you of a conversation with an interview panel, or better still, when you were up for promotion (or you had the technical information required that was needed to make a decision) and you were called in to an executive meeting, where you never felt you were supposed to have a seat:
Now the first thing to notice is the layout of the panel and how Mr. Villeneuve uses Kate’s head to set up the power dynamic within it. There’s three on the left, and one to her right, sitting alone (who has had the benefit of Kate’s curious glance at his flip-flops as opposed to everybody in suits and ties, thus his complete distinction and an escalation in his authority), and just as soon the grand old man in the room Dave Jennings (Mr. Garber), her boss, introduces the purpose while the final person takes his seat towards his left, he introduces Matt Graver (Mr. Brolin) while everybody looks at him (nobody else is introduced).
Essentially, just through precise composition, Matt’s been served something of a primer for a close-up, without explicitly doing so, and he remains the power center. Not surprisingly, Kate senses this dynamic and asks a pointed question about the identity of this operation, i.e. whether is it still this (Phoenix) office that is in authority, and we don’t see her face, and thus we have no idea whom the question has been addressed to. The familiar face is that of her boss, but everybody to her left immediately looks in Matt’s general direction, while he doesn’t bat an eyelid before answering.
This is pretty much the film’s core idea that addresses and motivates its examination of motion. The explosive opening, which literally has the narrative hit the ground running, has the SWAT team move-in towards a target, which exists within a suburban set-up with something of a compound wall – a representation of jurisdictional space.
Later on, in the film’s best sequence and one of the year’s highlights, the movement is freer, smoother and expansive. A convoy glides thorough border checkpoints travelling at a breakneck speed and the mobility here – as a representation/display of power (and old-world power dynamics) – is exhilarating. It is pure cinema.
Mr. Villeneuve hints the arrival of this overdramatic display couple of times, most notably when Kate gets on Matt’s chartered plane on her visit to “El Paso” area, where the plane seems to leave the jurisdictional disciplined and dare I say liberal urban space behind. A space where the neighborhood as all the symptoms of utter peace, and its dark underbelly (the walls of the house) is where the unsociable is repressed to. As the plane takes off, we see the topography change, and as opposed to the cut-and-dried version of demarcated boundaries – walls and fences – what we seem to have is something of a delimited zone up for grabs and where Kate’s liberal idealistic tendencies will probably be as effective as a knife in a gunfight.
Trivializing Kate’s idealistic politics as a variation of Winston Churchill’s or whosoever’s quote (“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain”) is not the point here, and it is not what Sicario is doing. There’s another story from Mexico – of a cop Silvio (Mr. Hernández) his soccer loving kid and his pure domestic no-nonsense wife – and Mr. Villeneuve is using to suggest what a war almost always is – our way of life versus theirs – and the inherent self-righteousness of it. A victory is not merely a territorial or a political grab, and is often a justification of an ideology. More so here, the urban disciplined space v/s the absolute anarchy of Juarez, the liberal America v/s the conservative Mexico, highlighted by a minor moment where one of the men on the mission ask Kate to finish her cigarette before presenting herself before a bunch of Mexican immigrants at a border patrol station. Needless to say, when she presents herself, all eyes are on her – an American woman amongst the authority. To navigate this region of expanded and ambiguous boundaries, Sicario chooses the best perspective to narrate itself, that of Kate, who is like a fresher on a job, and has next to no idea what’s going on (the comic version of this scenario is how Danny Ocean and Rusty deal with Linus’ ambitions in Ocean’s Twelve).
And it is this perspective that is established here in this short conversation we are discussing, with her head (and her eyes) navigating this room and trying to make sense out of it, or at least draw some sort of narrative. The others take their cue from Matt’s succinct description of who’s in charge, and everybody else pitches in essentially reiterating that she will be acting under Matt. The script distributes them one line each, the chorus to Matt’s lead if you will, before cutting to Kate’s close-up.
The next instruction set comes from one of the chorus members ending with a question to Matt about the rendezvous point, and Mr. Villeneuve instead of giving us a reverse shot of this, follows Kate’s eyes and her further realization of the power dynamic. Her eyes traverse the heads from her left to right and halts in the general direction of Matt’s.
And here’s when Kate instinctively asks him a pointed question (almost out of some sort of distrust) seemingly to test the waters – about where Guillermo is – which doesn’t make Matt uneasy but does make him spin a little web, and for which he looks at his chorus members. The next cut, which draws the first confirmation of the chasms in the panel, is to Kate’s boss Dave (he alone in the frame) and he has some sort of a disappointed blink, which is immediately caught by Kate, and which is established by an eye-line-match-cut.
The first cut is to a close-up of the guy to Dave’s right, but it is only to serve him as a reference point (if there were numbering, this guy would most probably be second-in-command) for Matt to spin his web, because just as soon the cut points to him he looks at Matt and we have an eye-line match and a wry smile before the big punchline comes –
At which point, a completely new angle is chosen for Kate, a little more removed causing a medium rather than a close-up and a few degrees towards the middle from the earlier angle which aligned her from the farthest guy on her left so that we follow her gaze, and now which aligns on the straight line between her and Dave. Now, I might be guilty of reading too much into these lines or attributing them with too much weight, but Sicario is nothing if not bothering itself with a woman in an essentially man’s world. The narrative does seem to be about Kate’s dynamic with the men around her with the drug war providing the backdrop, which in the case of Alejandro (Mr. Del Toro) is almost a stand-in for a relationship.
So before we go to what Dave has to say, let me make a few politically incorrect statements and which might cause me the dreaded foot-in-the-mouth disease. The thing with Sicario is it is more or less a narrative about Kate’s domestication (she’s divorced). We’ve Reggie, who serves the archetype of a girl’s best friend who has ambitions to be her one true soulmate and who is liberal enough to never outright propose her, or shall we sway her, but make gentle jabs at her personal life so as inch his way close to her, probably because he is too proud to be crass. But then, he is pretty much consumed by the state of her personal life and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were secretly spending a few tissues on her now and then. He questions her about her bra (in his mind, he is the closest to her) which she shrugs off, but he is too eager to get the conversation around her personal life (this is the Hannibal Lecter syndrome, if you will, where you gets aroused from knowing a person’s personal secrets and which becomes a substitute for plain sex) and later in the bar continues to go on about it.
With Alejandro though, it is Kate who is drawn towards him and the mysterious air around him. It is an extremely conservative view of things (there is a reaction shot for Reggie just as soon as Alejandro asks Kate about her well-being after the attempt on her life was made), but then Sicario is something of a Stanley Milgram obedience experiment, by the end of which Kate has been systemically broken into submission. It is a complex character, an idealist without a hook half-understanding the pragmatism the authority claims, and this is a great performance from Ms. Blunt whose mere reactions are one of the highlights/pleasures of the year gone by. The authorities, in their part, are not husbands or boyfriends but straight up father figures, none more so than Mr. Del Toro’s Alejandro, who at the end asks her to leave and make herself anonymous, just like her counterpart – Silvio’s widowed wife. The point is that this is not an ideological war and that their way of life isn’t too different from ours, and when Alejandro leaves Kate in her balcony, she is an almost helpless captive – to her own fascination directed towards him, and that her idealistic tendencies is what ultimately tie in with her domestic tendencies. She is a little girl, and if we come back to the line, Dave demonstrates his protective instincts first right after Matt’s punchline.
To which Kate responds in atypical fashion, i.e. breaking away from the umbrella of paternal protection and seizing control by asking a question (mostly rhetorical, from a obedience perspective), underlined yet again by her moving gaze, which starts from Dave and ends with who else but Matt.
And here, we see for the first time the camera up-close with Matt, and the negative space around him vastly reduced. He is committed, so to speak, and the contrast between his laidback attitude up until now to the solemn response here is a pretty good example of the kind of kitsch authority employs.
No wonder Kate volunteers, for she now feels in control, and I am reminded of Elizabeth Swann from Mr. Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. Here is an equally strong character, living under her father’s protective umbrella and curious about another world so as to provide a series its narrative perspective. Those films were Liz’s story just as this is Kate’s, but between travelling with the left (pirates) to eventually becoming a lord and marrying one, the former was essentially liberated from her conservative background. Kate, on the other hand, seems to be charting the opposite route – in Alejandro we might have somebody similar to Jack Sparrow. Which begs the question – is it so morally intellectually and emotionally crippling when one starts to see and understand the conservative perspective? Also, is there anybody who leans more heavily on the frame than Mr. Del Toro?