Character in Sicario
Some quick thoughts on Sicario: Day of the Soldado, the sequel to 2015’s Sicario by Denis Villeneuve. Soldado was written by Taylor Sheridan, just like its precursor, which was brilliantly written, but I was initially hesitant to see it due to a horrible marketing campaign. With creative assets filtered through social media which made it look like a standard B-movie action flick, I barely had any desire to see it, even though I loved the first installment. However, when I looked at the film credits on IMDb, on opening day, and realized Stefano Sollima directed it, I changed my mind immediately and decided to check it out. I have only seen a small amount of Sollima’s work – the episodes of the television show Gomorrah which he directed – but that alone was enough to entice me to go see Soldado with an open mind and measured expectations. The episodes I had seen were well-directed and paced – solid crime-genre storytelling – and though I hadn’t seen the entire series, the atmosphere and characters he developed stuck with me.
I’m impressed with Sollima’s sequel to Sicario. My biggest gripe is the title, to be honest. Sicario: Day of the Soldado sounds like some gringo executives sitting around Sony’s offices hemming and hawing over a title with the broadest possible appeal. Why couldn’t they just go with the Spanish title, all in? Sicario: Dia del Soldado would have sounded so much better. The IP of Sicario, and the actors in the movie, carry enough weight to attract people to the box office.
Soldado is very intense and intimate, in contrast to Villeneuve’s precursor, which was foreboding, detached and atmospheric. It’s boldly amoral, which is a breath of fresh air in this day and age, when political correctness tends to water down movies at the expense of storytelling. I didn’t know this at the time of watching it, but the studio apparently had the third act rewritten. However, when I walked out of the theater, I felt I had watched a cohesive vision; a story which was unsullied by committees and focus groups. It was visceral, uncomfortably violent, and uncompromising in its character portrayal. No one gets out unscathed.
What I do like about it is precisely what some critics dislike about it. It’s “lack” of moral compass. The first Sicario starred Emily Blunt, who acted as the audience surrogate, and whose dismay and shock at the events unfolding in the movie were supposed to be a reflection of our own. I can understand that intention – if it was one – but I didn’t sympathize with her character. I much more identified with Benicio del Toro’s character, the mercenary whose skewed moral compass is a result of the brutal murder of his family. He’s an amoral, cold-blooded killer – but I feel where he’s coming from. I personally don’t always feel shock and dismay when I hear about violence. There’s always a precursor, and in the short narrative window of a movie, it helps to know about that background to sympathize with character. Life’s not a pro-wrestling tournament, with underdogs, hometown heroes and heels. It’s full of fucked-up people who sometimes do good, and sometimes do bad. Moral relativism gets a bad rap, and I can see why when we’re in the political realm, but there’s a strong argument to be made for why it makes for better, more nuanced, and believable storytelling.
I loved the first Sicario, and didn’t mind the audience surrogate. But I also loved the sequel, without its supposed lack of surrogate. But here’s why it falls short of the first one. At the very end of the movie, after an astonishing sequence of events, Benicio del Toro’s character confronts his would-be assassin, a baby-faced gangster who one year earlier had attempted to kill him. It seems he’s going to kill him, until he starts talking about work. Future work, under him. Del Toro shuts the door and the credits roll, in what I imagine is a nod to The Godfather, when, at the end of a killing spree by a rival mafia clan, Michael Corleone – the decorated soldier, the good “straight” kid – gets anointed. The door shuts between him and his wife, symbolically breaking him from his previous life. What made that scene so powerful was the build-up. His reluctance to enter into the family business, and the quiet acceptance of his fate to carry the mantle since his brother had been gunned down. He has to enter into this amoral, violent lifestyle out of obligation, and duty to his family. In the case of Sicario, the kid that del Toro is recruiting had minor character development. What they did show us didn’t garner any sympathy from me. I don’t need to see good deeds, I don’t need to see Disneyfied innocence, I just need to see something human that I can relate to. The kid comes across as petulant and repellent because there’s none of that background. Since they place such emphasis on him at the end, I find the lack of background work on him a shortcoming. Michael Corleone, on the other hand, comes across as stoic and reluctant – even so, he soldiers on, and despite the bad shit you know he’s going to do, you have to root for him. The lack of this emotive connection and character development brings Soldado down a notch. The movie is still, in my book, a solid action thriller, and a very worthy successor to its slightly more successful precursor.