Sicario feels like a film I should like a lot more than I do. I have a hard time putting a finger on exactly why it doesn’t meet my expectations, and by no means is it a bad or even a less-than-great film. It tells a story with a potent narrative and a gut-wrenching theme and moral that is only all the more so for its realism. However, in a year where I’ve been singing the praises of so many films, this one feels relatively underwhelming, which I admit is not an entirely fair measuring stick to measure a piece of art by, but here we are.
The film follows agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) of the FBI as she is recruited to assist in a CIA operation to stop drug trafficking in El Paso, Texas. However, it quickly becomes evident that El Paso is not the site of the operation and she is instead flown in to Juarez, Mexico, with the apparent goal to draw out a cartel leader for arrest. As Kate continually tries to contribute to the operation, CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his partner Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro) prevent her from assisting or ensuring that the operation adheres to strict legality or ethics.
What makes this film so fascinating is that it seems to purposely be trying to frustrate its audience, particularly those who came to this film to see a strong female protagonist kicking ass against drug-peddling bad guys. Kate is perhaps the only person in this film you might call a “good guy,” yet she is constantly punished and sidelined for trying to make any sort of appreciable contribution or impact, and this is much more than just subtext. As a representation of the so-called “strong female character” trope, Kate is placed into a real-world situation where being physically strong or morally righteous is not an advantage; the male-dominated systems of manipulation and secrecy prevent her from being effective at her job, which in turn frustrates her from effectuating the positive change and happy ending we as an audience are hoping for. In short, this is a commentary on female empowerment struggling and failing to find a voice in light of a patriarchal system that perpetuates violence and espionage for the sake of a “higher good.” I don’t know about you, but I find that captivating.
So what is it exactly about this film that didn’t click with me? I think it comes down to the characters. Emily Blunt is great as always as Kate, but Brolin’s Matt is perhaps just a bit too charismatic for my taste. Because the film insists on keeping its audience as much in the dark as Kate is for most of the film, Matt’s scheming nature isn’t foreshadowed nearly well enough to give him much of a personality beyond “snarky guy who actually is an asshole under all that bravado.” As for Alejandro, while I think this is probably one of the best performances of del Toro’s career, the extent of that performance’s effectiveness relies on a late-film reveal that itself hinges on an attachment to Alejandro that the film never entirely commits to or bothers to develop. The structural beats are there to establish Alejandro as an important presence, but I never felt an emotional attachment to him that would have made his all-important character moment all the more resonant.
Perhaps it’s too harsh of me to judge a film by those who are ultimately its antagonists, but the cold truth of the matter is that this film failed to engage me on a deep emotional level. Structurally, narratively, cinematically: the pieces are all assembled and directed quite well. However, and perhaps this is in light of the other, more emotionally resonant films I’ve seen this year, I came out of this one feeling a little underwhelmed. Still a damn fine film and one that I would recommend heartily, but not one of the year’s best as I was led to believe.