“A friend and I were just saying about Villeneuve the other day that he really doesn’t care what he’s directing as long as it shows off his abs.” – Wesley Morris, Grantland
In the rollout of reviews for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015), understandable attention has been paid to the casting of Emily Blunt as FBI agent Kate Macer. Blunt’s character has been simultaneously praised for her prominence in an otherwise male-dominated story and criticized for the screenplay’s misuse of her as a glorified audience stand-in. In Sicario, Macer is given the opportunity to join a government task force charged with tracking down the Mexican drug cartel responsible for a botched kidnapping depicted in the tense opening sequence. The film is often beautiful to look at (thanks in large part to Roger Deakins’ cinematography), but operates with a bleak worldview in which Macer stands as the lone voice of reason. Yet for her troubles, she is constantly and consistently undermined for sticking to those principles, spending the majority of the runtime kept in the dark by her superiors about the real mission at hand (quite literally in the third act, which features extended sequences of night vision and heat vision POV cameras). This portrayal of Macer as an instrument of the male characters’ manipulations has caused some concern with some critics who see Macer’s powerlessness as an objectionable role for a female lead.
But an alternate reading of the film reveals Macer’s arc to be an authentic representation of a woman’s experience in a male-dominated career, in which she is doubly constrained by the limits and stipulations of her job. In Sicario, Macer’s refusal to do anything outside the law is an ingrained behaviour that echoes women’s experiences in the workplace, in which a woman’s job-related risk-taking is held under far more scrutiny than that of her male peers.
In the aforementioned opening scenes, Macer remains resolute in the face of the horrific discovery made by her SWAT team: an abandoned house in an Arizona suburb with dozens of asphyxiated corpses of kidnap victims hidden in the walls. In front of her peers and superior officers, she is the appropriate combination of empathetic and professional. Yet the grisly sight has clearly shaken her, as she washes the events of the day away in a post-raid shower, flinching as the hot water hits sore spots, both physical and mental. These private moments build throughout the film, as Macer appears more and more outwardly haggard and unsteady. Slowly, we see her previously steadfast worldview relentlessly brutalized by the cowboy diplomacy of her new colleagues: Josh Brolin’s CIA agent Matt Graver, and Benicio del Toro’s Department of Justice liaison Alejandro.
Graver and Alejandro are mirror images of workplace masculine bravado, in direct contrast to the cautious, law-abiding Macer. Graver is all devil-may-care smarm, showing up to work in grimy sandals and T-shirts with little concern about how his appearance will be perceived. By contrast, Macer’s partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) gently chastises her for “wearing the same shirt” for days at a time, and in general “look[ing] like shit” (a ridiculous notion when applied to Blunt, even at her most unkempt). Like his outward appearance, Graver is unconcerned how his methods will be perceived, so long as he get results. “We shake the trees to create a little chaos,” he explains to Macer in the aftermath of a bloody and unlawful venture into border city Ciudad Juárez to apprehend a prisoner. Secure in the knowledge that his actions will go unquestioned by his superiors, he openly flouts the law, much to Macer’s growing horror. The ends justify the means, and when the means are especially questionable (like when Macer picks up a stranger at a bar who, unbeknownst to her, is a would-be assassin played by Jon Bernthal), Graver is quick to deflect blame for her situation, chiding Macer for letting her guard down when she takes a personal risk:
Macer: You used me as bait.
Graver: You used yourself as bait.
In contrast to Graver’s bluster and transparency, Alejandro is mysterious and taciturn. Always impeccably dressed, his justifications to Macer for his and Graver’s unlawful actions are often inscrutable and delivered with steely aplomb—“Things will not make sense to your American eyes,” he tells her in one scene, and “You’re asking me to describe how a clock works. Just keep an eye on the time,” in another. Ping-ponging between these two macho personalities, Macer’s commitment to due diligence ends up being the very thing that makes her vulnerable to the machinations of the powers that be.
Every attempt by her to do the right thing is met with derision by both allies and enemies.
But this interpretation of the film does require attributing subtlety to a director rarely known for it. As referenced in the above quote from a review by Wesley Morris, Villeneuve is an exceedingly skilled filmmaker whose flourishes can be as facile as muscle-flexing bravura. Reverse Shot’s Adam Nayman finds Villeneuve’s formally accomplished but dramaturgically hollow stories understandably irksome:
“…so much of what happens in Sicario is so silly it’s hard to tell if we’re dealing with a directorial savant—someone who’s preternaturally gifted at one key aspect of filmmaking and oblivious to others—or a kind of insidious cynicism willfully committed to those medium-cool textures at the expense of other considerations.”
Morris’ and Nayman’s respective assessments are not wrong; Villeneuve’s handling of the political and social nuances of the U.S./Mexican drug conflict is brutish. Juárez is effectively rendered as a catch-all foreign bogeyman, blanketed in graffiti and beset by an ever-present soundtrack of faraway gunshots and faceless hangmen (a punishment meted out by cartels as a warning to its citizens). Though Villeneuve and his screenwriter Taylor Sheridan attempt to put a human face on the drug war in a series of scenes following a Juárez police officer and his young family, the dramatic twist of this tactic has diminishing returns upon subsequent viewings. It may be an attempt at moral ambiguity (and more generous reviewers have read it as such) but it comes across as grim and cynical. This cynicism carries over into Macer’s role in the film, as every attempt by her to do the right thing is met with derision by both allies and enemies.
The treatment of Macer, as brutal as it appears in the final film, is a significant improvement over Sheridan’s original script, which focuses on the character’s clumsiness and general ineptitude, like the flustered damsels of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey. Specifically, the attempt on her life by the bar assassin plays out quite differently between the script and the final film. In the final film Macer susses out the assassin’s identity mid-embrace and attempts to fight him off, but in the original text she (here as “Macy”) has to be rescued by her partner in a gratuitously humiliating way:
“Reggie’s fist slams the side of Ted’s face. It knocks him out of frame, exposing Macy completely naked below the waist, legs spread wide against the wall. She panics, reaching down to pull up her pants and falls over as Reggie jumps on Ted, beating him senseless.”
Many other ugly references to women were excised from the final film: on paper, Reggie says “Thought all you white girls shaved” to Macer after her rescue (in the film, Reggie just gently ribs Macer about her dishevelled appearance), and Alejandro menaces someone with the threat that “[his] daughters will burp the semen of twenty men with their last breath.” Despite these cuts, what remains is a variation on the script’s finale in which Macer is narratively cast aside. Upon discovering Alejandro’s true nature (the “Sicario” or assassin of the title), she’s removed from the case by Graver to make way for Alejandro’s revenge plot against the cartel leader responsible for the murder of his family.
In a way, it’s a less risky turn for Villeneuve to “show off his abs” by sticking to a more traditionally satisfying conclusion, of a man out to avenge his fallen loved ones in a galvanic cinematic bloodbath. After Alejandro returns from this killing spree, he surprises Macer in her apartment upon learning that she has discovered his plan and Graver’s complicity in it (and, by extension, the complicity of her other superiors). He forces her at gunpoint to sign a document that vouches for the legality of the Juárez operation. The document is not present in Sheridan’s version, in which Alejandro simply visits Macer to threaten her (the script describes him forcibly lifting her shirt to expose her newly acquired scars, and by proxy, her bare breasts; in Villeneuve’s Sicario, the scars are psychological). The moment Macer tearfully signs the fraudulent document is also the only time she ever compromises her principles. It’s a moment that has been characterized as a weakness of character, but it’s really a weakness of an institution that has dealt its female employees a losing hand. It’s a path in which risky behaviour by women is often deemed insubordinate—yet playing by the rules leaves them at the mercy of those who make them.