Of all the major directors to emerge during the 2010s Denis Villeneuve is almost certainly the most frustrating.  He’s frustrating not because he’s bad necessarily but because his talents don’t really get used correctly.  To date the best movie that Villeneuve has made is his breakthrough, 2010’s Incendies, which was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (representing French Canada) and presented a strange story about a brother and sister discovering their past amidst the Lebanese Civil War.  Since then he’s made three films in Hollywood with bigger budgets and to my eyes he seems to have mostly disappointed.  I’d be tempted to say that the Hollywood system is the problem, but it seems like Villeneuve has mostly been given the freedom to work and the films he’s made don’t really feel compromised.  Rather, I’m beginning to think that the big difference between his breakthrough and his later films can be found in the writing credits.  To date Incendies is the last film that Villeneuve is the credited screenwriter on, everything he’s made since them has been written by other people more or less on spec and feel like they’ve been sitting on the black list since the late 90s.  It was with that in mind that I was a little trepidations going into Villeneuve’s latest film, Sicario, which was written by some dude named Taylor Sheridan and showed every sign of being yet another misguided effort from cinema’s great under-achiever.

Sicario is part of an increasingly crowded field of movie set on the Mexican border and dealing with the vicious cartel wars in Juarez.  The focus here is on a woman named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI field agent who specializes in SWAT style raids on homes in the Arizona area which have fallen into use by the cartels.  When a raid early in the film goes wrong she is picked out by a DOD advisor named Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to take part in an elite task force that’s going after a cartel leader named Fausto Alarcon (Julio Cedillo) who they believe they can track down by causing a lot of disturbance in drug territory and then following a lieutenant named Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino) as accidentally leads them to Alarcon.  The big picture of all of this remains mysterious to Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) however, and they’re especially disturbed by a strange member of the task force named Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) who seems to be on a mission all his own and is playing by a rulebook that is decidedly outside the normal limits of the law.

If there’s one thing I have a pet peeve about its movies that think they’re really gritty but which don’t really have the ring of authenticity to back them up.  When I say “authenticity” I don’t just mean that they’re “accurate” (although that’s obviously part of it) but that they feel like they’ve been written by someone who really knows what they’re talking about and who isn’t just stringing together some imagined idea of what “grittiness” should be.  David Simon, for example, is someone who really seems to know what “the streets” are like and who comes to a very cynical conclusions about society through his actual knowledge of the subjects at hand.  On the other hand of the spectrum is David Ayer, a guy who (prior to his stint making World War II movies and movies based on DC comics) seemed to make a career making tough talking and seemingly streetwise films like Training Day and End of Watch but then fills them with moments that ring incredibly false and it becomes patently obvious that he just doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  I get a similar sense out of Sicario’s screenplay, which was written by a guy named Taylor Sheridan who was an actor of the TV show “Sons of Anarchy.”

Now, I have no doubt that Sheridan did a good deal of research for the movie and I’m sure a number of the details in the film are authentic but the story itself is a lot pulpier than its trappings would seem to indicate.  The same was probably true of Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 movie Priosoners, which desperately wanted to come off like a weighty drama but then quickly descended into a lot of mystery novel hokum.  The drop off into silliness isn’t anywhere near as extreme here but I think it suffers from the same basic malady.  It feels like a movie that was made by someone who went to see Zero Dark Thirty three years ago and said “dude, that’s badass, I’m going to read a bunch of articles and make my own procedural about a badass woman hunting down a dangerous person, except I’m going to fill mine with a bunch of dorm-room cynicism about, like, how messed up it is on the border.”  The movie exerts this irritating sense that it’s blowing its audience’s naïve little minds by showing how bad things are in Juarez but it’s really bringing nothing new to the table and doesn’t really have anything to say about the drug war more meaningful than “it’s really messed up and, uh, you have to become a monster to hunt monsters… I guess.”

I suppose that whole “become a monster to hunt a monster” thing is something else the film shares with Prisoners, that and the fact that Villeneuve seems to be working his ass off to class up some rather questionable material.  Once again Villeneuve does show some clear abilities behind the camera.  His ability to get the famed cinematographer Roger Deakins on board with these project helps a lot and he definitely shows some pretty good control over tone and knows how to tell stories visually.  He’s also wrangled a pretty good cast led by Emily Blunt and featuring some solid work by actors like Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro.  Del Toro’s character almost feels like a sort of ghost of the character he portrayed fifteen years ago in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, but the comparison to that infinitely smarter film about the drug wars is not flattering for Sicario.  I don’t want to come off too harshly on the film, it’s certainly a functional thriller and I am willing to recommend it on that level, but this could have and should have been so much more.

*** out of Four

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