Denis Villeneuve doesn’t make movies about human beings. After watching his last three works, Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, it’s clear that the inhabitants of his worlds are merely representations. This doesn’t seem intentional as much as it is incidental. His characters look human. They do things that humans do. Yet any poking or prodding quickly reveals only the machinery of story, a pawn clothed in flesh like gossamer, deficient in tendon, heart, and guts. (As a film set in a mental/dream space more than it is on Earth, though, Enemy is primarily concerned with humanity as other-than, making its lack of humanity more defensible.)
This is precisely why his films—notably, Prisoners and Sicario—are greatly lacking in emotional truth or moral underpinning. Human processes do not a human being make, yet Villeneuve often plays the sadist, forcing his characters into near-exploitative social experiments of grade-school situational ethics, overloaded by a profuse dollop of cynical fatalism. The semblances of justice and morality that burden his films are as hollow as his characters. This concoction of artificiality is none better represented than in Kate Macer, the lead character of Sicario.
It is through her perspective that Villeneuve plunges his audience into the film’s coarse, death-addled world. Set in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the film follows Emily Blunt’s protocol-loving, methodically by-the-book FBI agent into the bowels of the drug war. She is recruited by Josh Brolin’s boyish, flip-flop-wearing, pointedly vague D.O.D./D.O.J. (?) consultant Matt Graver to tag along in bringing the swift hammer of U.S. justice down on the cartel jefes who are responsible for horrors she witnesses at film’s beginning. Soon she’s questioning the whole operation, realizing she’s signed onto a seemingly morally borderless fight.
Kate is a character designed to be the audience’s surrogate while also assuming the role as the film’s moral center. A film like Sicario demands both, because of its propulsive, immersive formal structure and its questioning of America’s role and execution as an intervening global force. Unfortunately, by the film’s end, the design of the character falls prey to questionable narrative choices that not only detract from Kate’s roles, but reveals how lacking in a coherent perspective it ultimately is.
In a film that places U.S. intervention in the drug war and the more intangible oppression of systemic power under the moral microscope, it is crucial to hold perspective. Firstly, because the filmmakers choose to approach Sicario’s subject matter by means of the genre film—the action thriller—perspective keeps the style of the film in balance with the quandaries it presents. And secondly, a steadfast perspective holds the moral center of the film intact even when characters within the narrative choose otherwise.
I’m not of the opinion that a film absolutely needs to have a clear moral framework to have worth, but I do believe that making a film is a moral act. Even if the filmmakers pose questions to which they give no answers, the formulation and presentation of the questions themselves are loaded with a moral reasoning. A superb counterpoint to Sicario comes from this year (or 2009, depending on what release date you count): Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly. Farhadi weaves a moral fable about the responsibilities of community in the midst of white lies and good intentions. He frontloads his narrative with multiple perspectives, a feat done through visual trickery: His camera never sits still, always following and giving heed to others’ perspectives. In making each character complicit and representative of the narrative’s central moral ineptitude, Farhadi establishes and constantly pokes at this specific group’s supposed moral framework. About Elly becomes a mirror for audience and filmmaker which poses questions that reflect back onto ourselves. Farhadi isn’t interested in answers or judgments as much as he his in creating the most psychologically true circumstances. By bringing these weighty questions to the fore, Farhadi reveals the terrifying reality of the absence of morality and the need for a better moral compass.
I find the comparison of these two films apt because in positing Kate as the audience surrogate, the one with whom the audience falls down the morally murky rabbit hole, Sicario’s filmmakers are claiming her to also be the ground on which we rest when other characters compromise their own morals. Kate holds that responsibility inherently as a character because she is the one being tossed to and fro by the moral fluctuation. And certainly, it’s much more compelling for the audience to watch a human being go through these conundrums than it is a surrogate. But having her state by happenstance that she’s divorced, pick up an old cigarette habit because of the stress of the operation, or constantly ask “What is going on?!” isn’t enough to make Kate a three-dimensional character (however masterfully centered and emotionally devastating Blunt is in those scenes).
Villeneuve, in line with his other works, quickly shows his hand: These character shades are not part of a deeper psychology, but merely observed processes or habits to give Kate the façade of having one. Even her decision to join the operation is unbelievable. What trained, experienced, adult FBI agent signs on to a mission without any debriefing or detail? Because the film fails to establish her as a human being in the first place, she ultimately comes off as little more than a plot device.
In the end, the film is derailed not only by this failure to fully imagine Kate, but also by a third-act shift in perspective which completely changes its trajectory. Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, in quite possibly his saddest performance) is introduced early on alongside Matt as Kate begins her first day on mission. He’s a mysterious Colombian lawyer, whose true motives are not revealed until the film’s last 20 minutes, when the narrative shifts wholly from Kate’s perspective to Alejandro’s. Before this happens, Matt reveals to Kate the true objective of their mission: to have Alejandro infiltrate the cartel to off the head jefe. Yet instead of leaving the narrative in an act of moral turpitude at the hands of the U.S., Matt reveals to Kate that Alejandro’s family was brutally murdered by this cartel. In that sudden revelation, the audience is meant to identify with Alejandro’s retribution. Because of the realignment of our sympathies, a film examining the moral complexities of our actions in the war on drugs and other global intervention suddenly becomes a more simplistic revenge quest.
Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan’s choice to marginalize Kate in this way leaves a narrative vacuum. Filmic space and perspective, then, is usurped by the film’s true narrative: Alejandro’s revenge. We watch as order is restored through vengeance, and in turn the very moral and critical thrust of the film becomes twisted. The fact that Villeneuve chooses to show Alejandro complete his acts of supreme execution—on the only true “bad” guys of the film, no less—seem to vindicate his righteous, blood-soaked journey. In the end, the film’s main perspective shifts from a true, reflective moral center (murky though it may be) to a more immoral sympathy with revenge, thus rendering Kate’s—and, by proxy, our—perspective toothless and moot.
In deflating Kate’s diegetic worth as a human and a moral agent, Sicario reveals a fundamental contempt for its audience. Villeneuve turned out not to be interested in people so much as in process and revenge. The drug war, military/federal secrecies, covert missions, etc., are all narrative husks protecting a cynical, dilapidated worldview where morality is given no credence, even in its murkiest, most muddled conception. In the end, Sicario is a film no better than the compromised characters which compose its center. Villeneuve and crew seem all too eager to point out the issues, yet are ultimately too infatuated with this violent and vengeful world to offer any valuable insights into it.