By: Daniel Reynolds
One of the fascinating feats of construction in David Foster Wallace’s 2004 collection of stories, Oblivion, is how each piece of writing slices towards some kind of truth while beginning miles (and miles) away from its perceived narrative centre. Like most of Wallace’s fiction, this collection of stories is digressive, layered and mannered in the extreme. Each story drowns you in disorienting detail while still somehow always arriving ferociously at its unexpected, yet profound, point. There’s a lesson to be learned here. And maybe it’s because I’ve been reading Oblivion lately, but I couldn’t help but think the latest film by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Sicario, would have been better served had it paid heed.
Sicario begins on Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI task force member working on kidnapping cases related to drug trafficking across the U.S./Mexico border. It’s the kind of job where, oh, you may stumble into a house in the Arizona desert with dozens of bodies stuffed into the walls. It’s also where you might meet a man like Matt (Josh Brolin, swagger set to max), a shady consultant with shady ties to shady organizations. And, if you’re really unlucky, the job may introduce you to Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, looking more wolf-like than the Wolfman), an even shadier man. Macer meets these and other men (it’s all men) because she is offered a chance to make a real difference in the war on drugs. And, while her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) wants to keep things by the book, a part of Macer, like every narc, knows what she does is useless; the questions of her job still hang in the air, drugs still move across the border, people still get killed. Macer is on the periphery of the conflict, and she knows it. But to get closer, to take on Matt’s invitation into that particular heart of darkness, means peering into Juarez Ciudad and trusting a very mysterious process.
I feel almost predisposed towards enjoying most of Sicario, its various elements aligning to create, for a time, an optimal viewing experience. Working from a Taylor Sheridan script, the film is strongly directed by Villeneuve–muscular is the word most used–with a firm grasp on its tone, action and character. The score buzzes and booms just so to set your teeth on edge. Villeneuve’s camera spares no detail–he wants you to see the bodies and graffiti, the guys playing handball in the park as the pseudo-military convoy hammers by–but his shots tend not to feel superfluous. The look of the film, aided by living legend Roger Deakins, is beautiful even in the unrepentant ugliness it finds. The thrills it generates come easy, with tautly staged action sequences and well-earned suspense. It’s the kind of filmmaking that announces itself, sure, but it also says “trust me.”
And so we do. We take this all in, we grip our seats, we wonder where it’s all going. But after Jon Bernthal makes a memorable cameo as a cowboy lawman, and more details of the case emerge, and Alejandro looms larger and larger in the frame, something strange happens: the film outruns Macer, its protagonist. Sicario tiptoes up to ideas about a woman working in a terrifyingly male world, but then recedes. It dances around the idea of the U.S. government’s involvement in the drug trade, the various arms of its clandestine organizations working freely to police it as they see fit, but never quite commits. It puts these ideas in play and then strands us with Macer (and a dizzying array of information and opaque storytelling) to chase its narrative in a far more straightforward direction. It’s unfortunate because Blunt’s work here, wounded and steely in equal measure, is commendable. Her relationship with Brolin’s Matt and Del Toro’s Alejandro is largely unexplored but brought to life anyway by these actors. Del Toro, in particular, gets to do things with his movements and voice, his mere presence, that he hasn’t gotten to do in years. (See the far more involving Traffic for more.) We want there to be more there. I know I yearned for it. But after the, yep, muscular first half, Sicario shoots towards its conclusion and we’re left almost literally in the dust.
(There is also an ill-defined attempt to show the drug war’s effect on every-day Mexican citizens. You will be confused by these interstitial scenes–led by a cop played by Maximiliano Hernandez–and when you find out why they’re introduced, you’ll wonder why they were included at all. It’s Sicario‘s only real waste.)
In Oblivion, there is no doubt who is doing the writing. Flip to any page and it’s Wallace, burying you in detail, swarming the mind’s eye with information. It’s powerful stuff, overwhelming even. But in each story, as the peripheral ideas grow in significance and the stories conclude, there comes some piercing notion of understanding or realization. Most times, their late act developments twist into something surprising, their profundity coming as something of a shock. In Sicario, after the set pieces, brilliant production and solid acting (all really good things!), we’re left with the feeling the film believes itself to be more profound than it actually is. Villeneuve labours closer to the film’s specific truth, he makes things feel real, but leaves behind the emotional centre of his narrative. With Sicario, we drive into the unknown, only to discover it’s somewhere we’ve already been.