The glass ceiling over Mexico
In Sicario, a competent woman field agent tries to do something bigger, and is duly punished for it. Again and again. And again.
Although Steve Jobs sat atop the pile of new movies I’d wanted to see late last year but had no real intention to, Sicario held a special mentions spot. Much like how a random network ‘action’ show like NBC’s Blindspot became must-see TV when I learned the character was a Navy SEAL, you give Emily Blunt an assault rifle and tac gear, I’m onboard, no matter what. This turned out to be a limiting factor — because it’s a guarantee of solid entertainment, save it for a rainy day.
And that day was in the research phase for Episodes 76 and 77, those covertly addressing the more partisan elements of Call of Duty: Black Ops III. There was a lot of uncomfortable research, but one of the bright spots came with the decision to finally check out Sicario, as maybe it’d bear mention on the first episode there.
Like with Mad Max: Fury Road, but with less intensity, the critics’ narrative surrounding this film seemed to indicate the looming presence of a feminist statement, and this came from both sides. Where the screenwriter Taylor Sheridan fought for the lead character to be female, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw finds an irrevocable flaw in the character’s depiction: “When Blunt first comes on in all the tough-guy hard-body gear, it is a bit implausible. But she brazens out any possible absurdity with great acting focus and front.” This criticism can’t come from Emily Blunt being too pretty and therefore unrealistic as a soldier – how many movies see George Clooney in the desert, whether Three Kings or Syriana?
But there was some confusion for me going in, sustained by the opening title cards, which explain what ‘sicario’ means. While I saw that Emily Blunt was credited on top, a lot of the buzz I’d caught earlier created yet another mental narrative, a shifting one where perhaps this was a bait-and-switch, and the mystery man would take center stage.
When that eventually happened, which was not right away, I was actually glad. Benicio del Toro’s character was interesting, and Emily Blunt’s was cringe-inducing. But to roll it back, Sicario tells a very basic story with a very simple moral message. Emily Blunt plays a kidnap-response team leader for the FBI, who after uncovering a cartel tomb, volunteers for the opportunity to take the fight back to them, in El Paso.
Emily Blunt’s character is pretty tough. We’re introduced to her in combat mode, where she’s knocking down doors and shooting bad guys like the rest of them – and better than them, as consistent with your typical guy action protagonist. But the conceit of this movie is that Blunt becomes our audience proxy, the stranger to a strange situation, and maintains throughout this nasal sense of right and wrong that is to be dashed by the difficult men, transplanted here from prestige television drama.
She and the audience believes, initially, that they’re running one of those bigtime movie operations, blowing the lid off, or something of the kind. In actuality, she’s the FBI liaison because CIA agents can’t operate on US soil otherwise, and what they’re doing is completely illegal, moving a different cartel guy, an assassin, into place so he can execute a mob boss. So it’s a bigtime movie operation of a different stripe, one with instant moral grey.
When the Sicario sits down with the cartel boss, there’s an exchange ending in the boss’s argument that everyone’s the same. Driven by or to darkness in this endless farce they call the war on drugs. And in the concluding scene, our audience proxy has to sign off on that darkness, turning a blind eye in compliance with swirling forces that amount to a conspiracy. Aesop’s moral: black-ops exist. This movie’s thesis is so weak you don’t even walk away reiterating common knowledge, that modern America is guilty of war crimes. The crimes against humanity on show in the film are depicted lightly (the torture), morally arguably (killing a cartel druglord), or played more to characterize a badass (killing said druglord’s wife and kids, off-screen).
I wonder why Josh Brolin’s character agreed to take Emily Blunt’s character specifically for this mission, as she’s got a record and reputation for being incorruptible, and she works for something they call ‘kidnap-response.’ For a master manipulator, Brolin didn’t consider that kind of person’s psychological makeup, with years under her belt of rescuing children and hostages.
Naturally, there’s ideological friction. And this friction is expressed in Emily Blunt’s character being put in her place with words, with violence, and finally, with humiliation and physical domination. That she puts up a fight in each of these cases almost makes it worse, as she has to then be overpowered each time, and overall finds herself completely out of her league.
Military fiction is so attractive to me but so ugly all the same, occupying landscapes both physical and mental that exist decidedly outside civilization, as we come to appreciate it. To Americans, there’s something fundamentally alien about the kid behind the fence who throws a rock at the passing convoy, and so while armchair liberals craft moral regulations for their fellow man inside the walls, the base truth of human nature runs wild outside, and is thus enforced by a steep culture.
Juarez, like Iraq and Afghanistan, is a warzone apart from the civil American experience, where death is the constant consequence, and so racism and sexism become part of the survivor’s psychological toolkit. Let’s remember the scene where the squad first rolls out, heading across the border to retrieve a prisoner. There’s tension, signaled first by the decapitated bodies hanging from the underpass, and then by the busyness and narrowness of the streets.
Once the convoy has stopped on the highway, they keep an eye out, knowing that the prisoner’s friends will arrive soon. The veterans of this kind of situation know what to look for – maybe tattoos or something – but we don’t. The audience, and our proxy, are only pinged by the scariest Mexicans in the swarm. The morality tale of the scene comes from the Americans’ murder of the eventual belligerents, that this is not protocol. But otherwise, it’s nothing shocking to viewers accustomed to the language of edgy action cinema. This is a different classification of racism than the superficially similar scene in Bone Tomahawk, of Matthew Fox’s character tragically shooting his injured horse out of mercy, in an extended solo sequence, not soon after he guns down two Mexican travelers out of suspicion – to a jolted “hey!” from his comrades, and then not much else.
You wouldn’t question the soldiers in that moment, especially because they were proven right. I might question the writer and director of the film, who, with no moral interrogation, pull me in with their shorthand for human relations. To make the switch-up between racism and sexism, it’s like the rape scene in cinema through time. When Leo was sneaking around during the French trader’s rape of a Native American girl, my fists were practically grinding my nails into my palms.
Why is Hollywood so determined to turn me into a braindead animal? Why has this scene persisted, at least into January 2016 – though The Revenant technically debuted in 2015, for awards’ season contention – why is rape practically entertaining, because it carries with it both wracking tension, and the promise of righteously violent justice? Violent justice of the kind we don’t regularly see, that given the more heinous the crime the more heinous the reprisal, it’s a kind of reward for patient gorehounds like myself.
There’s an authoritative tone that borders on conscious arrogance, that the perpetrators of the image in movies like these, whether the real life people, or the filmmakers who study the real life people, represent an unwavering reality. And they’re not wrong. But they don’t represent the fullness of that reality. Sometimes we carry racist tendencies with utility, but a movie audience has to understand that this is a practice of military culture that’s persisted since the Ancient Romans – by and large, human beings can’t kill each other without some kind of psychological training, endemic to which is a persistent othering.
In a similar way, women don’t make the best soldiers. But movie audiences need to understand that women have been historically discouraged to take on roles like that, and not everyone in positions of military leadership are so enthusiastic toward the enlightened prospect to make the needed logistical accommodations. Pop culture is mainstream America’s first contact with new ideas. A film like Sicario depicts the unusual, a woman in a combat role.
Yet in doing so, it says nothing new. In fact, the old message that recycles here rings shocking in a 2015 context. I’m not blind – the average woman has to adapt physically to meet the various military standards. But the concessions go both ways. In those early moments of women entering the military like this (which have already come and gone), the greater cultures of military and nation have to be accepting, which is a purely psychological game. Otherwise, the vastly outnumbered women in uniform will be subject to sexual abuse and violence, realities I wish I were blind to. Sicario doesn’t have a responsibility to push back on that, to imagine a successful version of Emily Blunt’s character – or just ask around, whether Israel or the women and girls in the Middle East fighting ISIL – but that’s why the movie’s disappointing, not overwhelmingly offensive.
The rumors about Sicario 2: Your Sicario is a Werewolf began a little while ago, and I’d be up for it. This time, Benicio del Toro’s character may be going solo, which indeed would be a continuation of where the first movie ended. That’s actually exciting, because the science-fictional confrontation with the cartel druglord in the end was the film’s best scene, and again, I vastly preferred his character to Blunt’s, as did the screenwriter – although subconsciously.
A movie with this subject matter is personally interesting, and in the run-up to seeing it, I worried about being inspired to return to FX’s The Bridge, which would’ve been complicated because I can’t remember even now if I finished the pilot and disliked it, or left it unfinished and disliked it, and would have to start from the beginning.
Movies that talk about the US-Mexico drug war are rare, just like movies critical of US behaviors in the wildlands of foreign countries – does anybody out there remember Green Zone? It’s good. And if you take out the female element out of the sequel, I could see myself making the effort to see it in the theatre (if Blade Runner 2 doesn’t break my heart).
Though I was never cognizant of this curious predilection of mine until very recently, cognizant and then critical, I’ve always been strangely comforted when it’s an all-male cast of characters in the action thing. When Gears of War 3 was announced to have two playable woman soldiers, I shuddered – the image of Anya being curbstomped in multiplayer instantly sparked in my brain. When it was boys-only, all kinds of violence were acceptable, and as such, the first two games were no holds barred gore-fests.
Taking the sole female character out of The Revenant would’ve made it better, but I cite the Gears of War example not only for that mentally-based anecdote, but because of how Gears of War 3 (or Gears of War: Judgment, in my case) eventually turned out. It was fine.
I’ve seen women brutalized in multiplayer, but there’s enough context there to make it acceptable. Should violence against women ever be acceptable? In a complicated way, yes, if it means they’re ‘elevated’ to a stage where violence is something they charge into head-on, and isn’t inflicted on them after agency and personhood is stripped out.
Sicario represents the kind of media that inspired the predilection in the first place. Not because Emily Blunt’s character is kidnapped or killed, but because she is forever out of place. That is the narrative of this movie – it’s text and subtext both. And it’s not because she’s a woman, but… she is a woman. The same image is created, and the accidental message sets in, pretty strong.
Making you wonder if it’s really an accident after all. But you want to hope for people.
Sometimes – and sparingly, believe me this time – I think about what it would be like, married to someone like Emily Blunt. Not because she’s A-list beautiful, or British, or has a Dixie sharp wit, but because she’s angling at different kinds of roles for women. She’s had to experiment with genre in this pursuit, but for people like me whose definition of the Strong Female Character is rooted in a basis of the 80s Action (Male) Hero, someone who’s unassailably badass as foundation, Emily Blunt is a rising star.
I never had any guesses, but I wouldn’t have expected it to be her, to be in the end, the woman with the real gun in her hands. To be married to someone like that? I guess… makes you want to match it.
Hm. Coming soon from Michael Bay, the Michael Bay film that Michael Bay-haters always accuse him of having made.
I don’t begrudge the guy, John Krasinski — it’s just too pithy a remark to pass up. #asshole