By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
Film critics acknowledge just a few revered gems of action filmmaking as reference icons of the craft. The two Michael Mann films “Heat” and “Miami Vice” demonstrate the highest level of depicting moral dilemma, pragmatic reality and violent consequence set against an artful film canvas woven from the intricate threads of plot, cast, soundtrack, scene and nearly every other dramatic element.
“Heat” and “Miami Vice” are prefect films, without flaw and packed with subtlety that makes them viewable again and again. They engage the viewer in exactly the same way the eccentric Howard Hughes was drawn to obsessively watch and re-watch the remarkable 1968 John Sturgis film “Ice Station Zebra” based on the Alistair MacLean novel of the same name. As he descended into insanity, Hughes obsessively watched “Ice Station Zebra” several times per day for at least a year, hunting through the intricate film analyzing each scene and searching for new subtleties in the plot and dialogue. Such was the richness of this production, and the depth of Hughes’ dementia.
To an even greater degree, the 2015 masterwork “Sicario” (Spanish for “hitman’) by Director Dennis Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan is not only a masterfully made film, but a remarkably relevant commentary and observation of the ongoing U.S. border and immigration dispute with Mexico. This combination of technical mastery and social relevance make “Sicario” an important movie.
“Sicario” is packed with plot details. The movie is remarkably lean, edited down to only the “meat” of the story. There are no accessories, no distractions. By contrast the recent 2018 film “Den of Thieves”, by director and writer Christian Gudegast, tried to achieve a similar level of mastery and subtlety. But “Den of Thieves” ultimately failed to reach the level of either one of Michael Mann’s films, “Heat” or “Miami Vice”. Gudegast’s “Den of Thieves” crumbled on overdeveloped characters and plot diversions that made the film feel clunky and forced. The visual and sound elements were all there in “Den of Thieves”, it just did not execute the lean subtlety of “Heat”, “Miami Vice” and especially “Sicario”.
While every scene in “Sicario” is structural to the overall film, one scene consistently grabs viewers by the throat and leaves film students and writers in awe. The Border Scene.
The border scene opens with a voiceover radio narrative from somewhere, an anonymous voice of authority on the radio that describes the situation at the border. The traffic jam at the U.S. border is an allegory to the delays prevalent in the U.S. immigration process.
The scene quickly cuts to character Kate Marcer (Emily Blunt) who appears observant, apprehensive and confused by the evolving situation. Her face shows puzzlement, reflective of the general mindset of most U.S. citizens when trying to understand the Mexican border situation.
Character Kate Marcer is all of America trying to understand the immigration issue. She is experiencing apathy and fear, but she is naïve of the actual reality of the border situation. Her character is hastily thrust into the environment of the border, forced to make sense of an impossible and violent situation.
Kate Marcer tries to preserve her integrity, but she is reluctantly pulled into a world with violent rules. She resists the second command to “Get out of the car” from character Alejandro Gillick (Benecio del Toro). She tries to slow down the action for a moment of reflection and analysis. It nearly costs her life.
There is no music in this short opening part of the scene, a chance for the audience to join in Kate’s experience of taking in the puzzling border environment and trying to understand it. The early lack of music in the scene also leaves it feeling sparse and tense.
Alejandro Gillick is hypervigilant. He maintains his situational awareness and calm mindset, becoming the first character to perceive a subtle threat emerging when he spots a carload of military age males who don’t belong in the setting. Alejandro does not reveal his observation initially, but tells Kate to “Take your service weapon out.” Uncomfortably, Kate complies with this first command and removes her pistol from her holster.
Then we are introduced to a key, but subtle character, Steve Forsing (Jeffrey Donovan). The character of Steve Forsing is based on a photo of an undercover U.S. Army SFO-D operative taken during the Gulf war. The character appears vanilla plain, generic and anonymous, almost to the point of being conspicuously anonymous. He begins the scene as an observer, transitions immediately and tensely to an active participant observing, “Gun. Gun left…”. The radio crackles to life giving the characters in the scene the disjointed and ambiguous rules for trying to moderate a deteriorating and threatening circumstance soon to spin out of control.
The rest of the scene is filled with subtlety and incredible tension quickly contrasted with horrific violence. Every nuance of the scene is finely crafted. Notice the dog barking in the beginning of the scene when the visual cuts to outside the vehicle as the soundtrack music booms into the forefront. The aural tendril of the barking dog continuing quietly in the back of the soundtrack below the musical narration maintains a subliminal tone of alarm and panic underlying the entire scene.
Alejandro pleads in Spanish, “En paz, en paz”. This quick Spanish dialogue to a non-Spanish speaking audience will be most effective. The situation becomes tense and difficult to understand as it accelerates. Director Dennis Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan rely on the reality that most viewers cannot speak Spanish, and that Alejandro’s pleading caution to the cartel gunman adds to the building chaos of the scene. The subtitles read, “In peace, in peace”. It is a last, feeble attempt to interject reason and civility into a barbaric setting. The English dialogue appears in a subtitle to complete the subtle message that few real-life characters embroiled in the border conflict recognize a peaceful alternative to the prevalent violence in the region.
Finally, the scene concludes with contrasting reactions from characters that include Josh Brolin as team leader Matt Graver. Graver’s reaction to the border shoot-out is pragmatic acceptance and detached calm. It contrasts with Kate Mercer’s terror and confusion.
“Sicario” is not just a great film, it’s an important one to view, contemplate and analyze in the ongoing discussion of the war on drugs and the Mexican border security conversation.
This Friday, June 29, 2018 the sequel to “Sicario” opens in U.S. theaters. While the original 2015 masterpiece will be hard to follow, writer Taylor Sheridan is back for “Sicario: Day of the Soldato”. With a new director, Stefano Sollima, it will be interesting to see if “Day of the Soldato” will be able to deliver with the same subtlety, technical mastery and relevance as the original “Sicario”.