2015 has had its fair share of great movies, and hindsight may prove me wrong. But so far, this is shaping up to be the year of the Big, Promising, Competently Made Disappointment. Be it blockbuster (Age of Ultron,) indie (Z for Zachariah,) comedy (the bizarrely-still-in-theatres Trainwreck,) or awards-baiting-biopic (Pawn Sacrifice [review forthcoming],) buzzed-about releases which I had every intention of loving have consistently come in just a notch above “fine.”
I had every intention of loving Sicario, and boy did its first hour or so reciprocate. From the chilling prologue to the perfect Juarez sequence, the first half of the film is a masterclass in claustrophobic mood-building. Villeneuve knows the precise composition of dread: sharp crescendos of grizzly violence convince us that anything could happen, deep swells of bureaucratic procedural remind us that no one will care. It’s not a fear of death, so much as numb routine — that unremarkable whizz of a bullet, slump of a body, scratch of a pencil on some government form. “Illegal.”
If all that sounds timely and political, don’t you worry: the remainder of the film is firmly committed to saying nothing. No ends to connect, no arc for any characters to go on, no plausible motivations or logical narrative. Even the mood — that one thing the film so masterfully manipulated — follows no meaningful trajectory as the body count joylessly increases. I’m fine with uncertainty — Inherent Vice and its law-bending Brolin didn’t make a lick of sense either, and I loved it. But there’s a difference between haziness and laziness. This one felt like no one knew what was going on, and “that’s a metaphor for the drug war” doesn’t carry convincing weight. Like Fury, it takes an action-riddled turn which only serves to muddy the damnation of the first act; only this time, it’s not even ostensibly fun. Emily Blunt’s Macer, the clear audience surrogate, tells us exactly how we should feel by the end of the film: a vague hodgepodge of negative emotions, filled with holy indignance but unable to clearly state why.
The initial chill of Juarez propelled me through the lesser half of the movie, and lingered even as the credits rolled. Weak script aside, I was genuinely shaken. But with a subject this heavy, is “shaken” really the litmus test? Crossing lines is easy. The border between mood-building and sadism — between calls to arms and empty protest — is a point.