Take Me Back to Phoenix
by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Denis Villeneuve
In his previous film Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve proved capable of making an entire film without a single joke in it. Prisoners could make a convincing argument for being the most humorless movie ever made, and in Sicario the director nearly accomplishes this feat again. Sicario is a numb, boring mess, the kind of effort only interesting to people who never go to the movies or watch television, where the "thrills" of the U.S./Mexico border war have been uncovered in more empathic and gripping fashion by dramas that actually have something to say.
Benicio Del Toro plays Alejandro as a poor man's Javier Bardem, attempting a portrayal of masterful subtlety that never comes together in the least. Alejandro is a corrupt government operative who plans to eliminate one cartel and put another in its place. His master plan is about as complicated as eggs on toast. Usually Del Toro is at least fun to watch, but here he seems like a parody of himself, too familiar to us from his previous roles and self-consciously hogging the camera at every opportunity. His performance is far short of a disaster, but it mainly sits there like a lump.
Most of Sicario is Emily Blunt whining to Josh Brolin about how she is upset about where he is taking her. He says they are going to El Paso to look for information about a mass grave in a booby-trapped house, but they are actually on the way to Juarez where they plan to shake down a guy for reasons. Blunt has improved her craft immensely in recent years, but she does not really have the charisma to carry the underwritten role of a flustered and naive cop. Brolin looks like her dumpy father rather than a peer.
In between extremely dull sequences of violence, Villeneuve places extensive aerial shots of crowded border crossing. It is a sight familiar to everyone familiar with this turgid topic. Blunt just wants to do the right thing, but it soon becomes apparent she has no actual idea what that is. "You're doing nothing in Phoenix," Brolin says. "Do you want to find the guys who did this?" She nods furiously.
When she is not complaining about the hidden motives of her superiors, Blunt meets a local officer (Jon Bernthal) in a bar and rides him at length. During their liasion, she spots a telltale band that the cartel uses to wrap drug money. She immediately goes for her gun. He renders her helpless, to be saved by the unlikely intervention of Del Toro. It was kind of difficult to hear what Del Toro said after that because he was muttering, but I doubt it was that important.
Why did Sicario receive such glowing reviews when it is basically the equivalent of dumping a cliched bag of shit onto a movie screen? I'm not really sure. Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy made a hilarious, insightful trainwreck of a film on the same subject in 2013 called The Counselor and everyone hated it. I would say it comes down to Blunt herself, whose angular, ghostly face is expert in taking on an identity nothing like her own.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.