Denis Villeneuve's films have a way of getting under your skin and staying there. Prisoners was a film that rode a precarious edge, and in any other hands it may have very well been a mawkish and tediously formulaic melodrama, but in the hands of Villeneuve it was unnerving and occasionally poignant. Not only did Villeneuve find the visceral heart in a story of desperation, grief, and the wages of retribution, but he - like so few - found a way to smartly utilize Hugh Jackman's predilection for theatricality.
With Enemy, Villeneuve delivered an elusive thriller rooted in a literal manifestation of existential crisis, exploring the duality of self with subtle surrealist horror. The film's ending presents the fully-realized apex of that specific terror - an unforgettable moment that crawls into your brain and imprints itself there, its abstract purpose not a puzzle to be solved but a declarative statement.
Sicario is an exceptional, unforgettable film that I've thought about every day since first seeing it two months ago. The director's most recent effort is a disquieting journey into a drug war that is deceptive in its simplicity. Villeneuve forgoes the typical political procedural in favor of elegantly examining moral complexity, using Emily Blunt's Kate Macer as both an audience proxy and a powerful statement.
It is, essentially, the best film about sexual assault that features no actual sexual assault. Instead, Villeneuve brilliantly uses the idea of rape in abstract, the entirety of Sicario permeates with that specific feeling of helplessness, despair, and suffocation. Such a nuanced approach to the concept of sexual violence is rare, yet even more rare is the film which utilizes that concept indirectly in a way that speaks to the specific horror of the act. Here, sexual assault along with its machinery of fear and resultant trauma are analogous to an FBI agent's experience as she's thrust into a special task force's mission to take down the head of a cartel in Mexico.
Led by the flippantly masculine agent Graver (Josh Brolin) and the enigmatically intimidating Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), Kate is deliberately kept in the dark to an extent that is often agitating, even for the viewer. She is given only vague fragments of their mission and intentions, and each time she presses the men for more information she is met with exasperation and scorn. Kate is ultimately helpless, a bystander to her own victimization as these men take advantage of her professional identity and use her for their own gratification.
Kate's gender doesn't necessarily define her character, but it's more thoughtful and compelling to have a woman in this specific role, particularly when she's sent out among these wolves with elusive motives and indecipherable morals. A man feeling helpless among other men isn't as resonant or effectual as watching a woman figuratively drowning on dry land, the act of withholding more suppressive than inundation.
An encounter with a shady agent at a seedy bar leads to a physical altercation when she takes him home, one that reinforces why it's more interesting to cast a woman in this specific role. It's then that her intangible feelings of helplessness materialize in literal form as Kate is attacked and nearly killed for knowing and seeing too much. The assailant strangles Kate, an act of intrinsically intimate violence often associated with sexual assault and crimes of passion - an act of violence that has been fetishized by those who discovered its sexual applications.
Rape is used as a theme, not an act. And it's one that's repeated throughout Sicario like an unpleasant refrain. Alejandro enters an interrogation room with a jug of water that seems to declare his torturous intentions, but there's a very distinct feeling of confused dread as he situates his groin uncomfortably close to the detainee's face - an act we witness from behind Alejandro, neither confirming nor denying the implication of sexual assault. Its a moment that feels like masculine posturing, of dominance being established through that which biologically defines man. It is here that Villeneuve institutes the idea of masculinity as a weapon and symbol of power.
It is echoed again, later, directly following a treacherous underground border mission, when Kate's shrewd male colleague is restrained and told to "relax" and "just lay there and take it, it'll be over soon." It is the language of rape.
Yet Villeneuve's subjectively indirect approach urges viewers to confront the concept of rape - and its tangible and intangible consequences - directly. Kate Macer's every attempt at taking agency is met with derision or halted with abrupt violence. She is systematically suppressed and rendered helpless by the withholding of information, and what sense of self-sufficient authority Kate has earned is effortlessly stripped away by people who coldly take advantage of her. Kate is being used for that which defines her, after which she will become meaningless, left to sift through an unwarranted trauma inflicted upon her.
The more Kate struggles, the worse her experience becomes, just as the more she learns about this operation, the less it makes sense. Villeneuve employs intimidation and opportunism as masculine constructs, presenting men like Graver and Alejandro as narcissistic sociopaths whose actions are morally questionable at best, in a world where power is currency and earned through the dispassionate eradication of life.
Villeneuve asks what kind of men head into the drug war and commit murder indiscriminately, thoughtlessly, and without flinching; what kind of men shoot first and ask later; what kind of men readily enter this violent chess game only to replace one undesirable drug lord with one that's slightly less terrible; what kind of men believe that the only way to beat the game is to fool yourself into thinking you've figured it out, that by actively participating instead of resisting, you've cheated the system; what kind of men believe it's better to be the perpetrator than the victim?
The answer is evident, as is its unsavory real-world analog.
In Sicario's final, breathtaking act, Kate is forced into submission, her integrity violated with a pen stroke. Everything she thought she was or knew or understood has been effectively destroyed. With a gun to her head, Kate is coerced into falsely supporting the very men who subjugated her. In this moment she is fraudulently re-gifted with her own agency, her only chance of survival to lay back and relax, just take it, it'll be over soon. Kate's only choice is to betray herself, either way.
Villeneuve's efficacy in thematically repurposing sexual assault instead of using it as an inciting incident cannot be understated. There is raw brilliance in the deconstruction and application of this concept, of subjectively linking the feelings associated with the act and consequences of rape to a seemingly irrelevant narrative, underscoring a specific woman's individual - and yet shared - experience in such a singularly visceral and inventive way.