Emily Blunt is Sidelined Action Heroine in Sicario

sicario posterI FINALLY caught up with Sicario after it managed to avoid me for a couple weeks, and while I’m glad I saw it, it did not blow me away. It’s a highly competent movie featuring highly competent actors, made by a bunch of highly competent people, but it’s only intermittently engaging and it does not offer any ideas or insights deeper than your average Nightline special. Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) and starring Emily Blunt, Sicario is basically Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic with a dash of Michael Mann’s inscrutability. With Roger Deakins working as the director of photography, this is a gorgeous movie to look at, and Villeneuve puts together a few really tense action sequences, but in between the action beats the film is curiously flat, with characters who are all so painfully cool—and one who is epically dumb—that they’re more like ideas of people dreamed up by a sixteen year old boy who thinks CIA agents and hitmen are like, totally awesome.

Sicario is the first credited screenplay of actor and grown adult Taylor Sheridan, and at its heart is FBI tactical agent Kate Macer (Blunt), a by-the-book SWAT-type who leads a raid on a house in Arizona and discovers dozens of bodies hidden in the walls. Following her discovery she’s pulled into an inter-agency task force alongside Graver (Josh Brolin), a spook presumably from the Department of Defense, but c’mon, we all know he’s CIA from the moment he shows up in flip flops. The fact that Macer is the last person to realize she’s been working with a thinly-veiled CIA hit squad makes her the dumbest person in the movie, which undercuts the otherwise “strong female hero” vibe she gives off. Physically Macer is as capable of any of the men surrounding her, but none of the information we’re given about her adds up to a feasible character.

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Macer has been working in Arizona for five years. This is not an insignificant amount of time—she’s young but she’s not a newbie. And yet somehow, she has NO IDEA about anything to do with the drug cartels making life miserable along the Mexican border. “She’s not an investigator,” her boss says, playing off her complete lack of knowledge regarding the primary cartel operating in her backyard, which seems unbelievable but Sicario asks us to go along with this, because Macer being even remotely interesting would get in the way of the real protagonist of the film, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). This is the best we’ve seen from Del Toro in years, and Alejandro barely has to speak in order to command the screen. Watching Alejandro work is way more interesting than anything Macer does, but we only get one sequence to really observe Alejandro in action. Not for nothing, it’s the best part of the film.

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The moral of the story is that there is no room for heroes in the war on drugs, and otherwise good cops like Macer get chewed up and spit out by the amoral grind of fighting the cartels. Okay fine, except we’ve seen this story before, several times and in several different mediums from documentaries like Narco Cultura, to TV shows like The Bridge, to the aforementioned Traffic and even Michael Mann’s (uneven) Miami Vice movie. Sicario has nothing new to add to the conversation, except a female lead it renders useless by the third act. It’s a beautifully made film, though, and the action set pieces really are tense and effective. There’s enough payoff in the action to make Sicario feel satisfying, but underneath the combined polish of Villeneuve and Deakins is a hollow shell.

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6 thoughts on “Emily Blunt is Sidelined Action Heroine in Sicario

  1. gayle

    I really like Emily Blunt, I want her to have a big break out role and this just is not it for me. Everyone made a big deal about the role being originally for a man but they fought for Emily to have the role. Except then she barely talks, she follows the other characters around looking concerned. I was much more intrigued by Benicio del Toro’s character and his motivations. I feel like the trailers and press promised one story, but I watched a different one.

    1. Her character was anti-climactic after all the hype. Anyone could have played that role. It’s good they kept it female, simply because 1) that’s what the filmmakers intended, and 2) there just ought to be more female roles, period, good or bad. But let’s not pretend like that’s a great character. And yeah, it did feel like a bait and switch once you’re in the movie and you realize Blunt’s role is so unimportant to the narrative. She’s basically just there as a wide-eyed audience analog, but I feel like audiences aren’t as dumb as Macer. We don’t actually need a stand-in for that story, we see it on the news all the time–we get it. What really drove me nuts, though, is the scene where her partner is like, “I will get the answers you couldn’t!” AND THEN HE DOES. Macer is literally good for nothing. All she does is complain and tattle. She makes not one meaningful contribution after the opening scene. It’d be one of thing if she tried to play their game and ultimately just couldn’t live with it, but there isn’t one moment from the time Graver and Alejandro show up in which she is on equal footing with them. She is just a patsy. It was kind of infuriating, because I also felt like the trailers promised a different movie where she would have a more active role.

      On Thu, Oct 8, 2015 at 12:25 PM, Cinesnark wrote:

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  2. gayle

    Yes, the scene with the partner yelling at them to explain what is going on after being there for all of 5 minutes was ridiculous and completely undermined Emily Blunt’s character. I am glad I am not the only one who was bothered by that scene.

  3. Josephine

    When I first saw the trailer for this film, I was really excited. However, once I watched it, the first thing that came to mind was, “this was not what I thought it would be.” Not in a bad way, necessarily, just that I had a different impression of the kind of film it would be. Certainly, I thought Blunt’s character would be more of a badass…less confused or naive. I don’t have a problem with vulnerability or inner conflict, but I do have a problem with stupidity. They gave us no context as to why she was the way she was…no real backstory. Consequently, I did not feel as invested in this character as I should have. Her partner, with his law background, should have been the annoying straight shooter/by-the-books one that objected to things…so her “sit down” with her boss felt so disappointing. I feel like this character was a missed opportunity. Prior to the release of the film, there was much talk of how they pushed for this character to remain female…so why not give us the best and most satisfying version of this character then?

    And you’re right, it definitely felt anti-climactic. I feel like, in 2015, after the infinite amount of drug/government/conspiracy/coverup/covert task force/inter-agency movies and tv shows we’ve consumed, filmmakers really have to step it up to give us something fresh and impactful. The cinematography shouldn’t have to carry so much weight. Nevertheless, there was enough for it to be enjoyable. I guess I just wanted more, or something different. I wanted to love it. I’m tired of movies just being satisfactory or not bad, but not great.

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