This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Mike D'Angelo’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Second viewing, no change. Having now professionally reviewed this film four times (for The Dissolve from Cannes, and then for the A.V. Club, the Nashville Scene, and the Las Vegas Weekly), I thought I had nothing left to say, especially since I made a point of addressing the most common criticisms. But since a bunch of folks are praising Adam Nayman's takedown for Reverse Shot, let me quickly address a few of his points.
“I have to know,” Kate tells her pal Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), but there’s little urgency in the role or the performance—and almost none of the obsessive fervor that bled through Jessica Chastain’s porcelain features in Zero Dark Thirty.
A couple more paragraphs about Zero Dark Thirty follow, but the comparison is misguided; the two films' aims are almost diametrically opposed. While I generally like ZDT, its greatest failing (which I unpacked at some length during its theatrical release) is the way that it fashions Maya, Chastain's dogged C.I.A. analyst, as a conventional Hollywood hero—the one person involved in the search for Bin Laden who Gets It and just powers through the (male-dominated) resistance until she's finally vindicated, albeit by (male) proxy. (This is a failure of nerve only within the specific context Bigelow and Boal created; for more, read the linked piece.) Sicario is doing something entirely different with Kate, and "obsessive fervor" isn't in her makeup, that single line of dialogue notwithstanding. The role is intentionally reactive, the character deliberately uncertain of herself at all times. She's being buffeted. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It's intended to.
I likewise strenuously disagree with this characterization:
The idea, which Sicario keeps in play for its duration but only really levels with in the final third, is that Kate’s passivity and weakness is not only a by-product of her immediate circumstances—her status as a woman and an outsider in a border war whose participants have earned their battle scars—but also an embodiment of liberal self-delusion as pertains to the hard (and, it’s implied, male) work of keeping America safe.
I'm not buying the liberal self-delusion angle, but skip that for now. It boggles my mind that anyone could watch Sicario and refer to Kate Macer's "weakness." She confronts her superior officers regarding their illegal bullshit at every opportunity, without fear or hesitation. She does the honorable, admirable thing almost without fail. It's just that Sicario doesn't pretend that doing so would get her anywhere. There's no sign of weakness here. Kate is incredibly strong in a situation where her strength is useless. This is a deeply pessimistic film about the near-impossibility of overcoming institutional corruption—one that's honest enough to have its protagonist struggle for a long time about whether what she's witnessing even is corruption. (Hence "I have to know," which she says very near the end.)
And then ugh:
A film that creates a straw-woman like Kate simply so she can be disabused of her by-the-book naiveté—and literally physically abused by a would-be assassin, in an aborted-sex-turned-combat scene calibrated for maximum discomfort (and which concludes with her being rescued by a stronger male ally)—is one thing; a film that does this and then circles back to her at the end to underline her weakness as systemic and tragic is rather suspect, to put it nicely.
Maybe I'm misreading him, but Nayman (who concurs with certified lunatic Armond White's assessment of the film as "conservative") appears to believe that Sicario endorses the actions taken by Brolin's Matt and Del Toro's Alejandro, and ultimately reveals Kate as a well-intentioned but misguided fool. "To put it nicely," that's absurd, just as it was absurd when people dogpiled The Wolf of Wall Street for allegedly celebrating Belfort's bad behavior. Reading the passage above, you'd think Nayman were describing, say, Mississippi Burning, in which Willem Dafoe's by-the-book agent finally embraces Gene Hackman's less scrupulous methodology. Or that Kate Macer were Eliot Ness in De Palma's The Untouchables, climactically demonstrating The Chicago Way by shoving Frank Nitti off a rooftop to his death when he tries to surrender. This woman initially refuses to sign a document she knows is false even with a gun pressed under her chin. That she ultimately caves is not weakness, nor is it tragic. It's simply reality.
(I'm also curious as to how an aborted-sex-turned-combat scene ought to be calibrated, if not for maximum discomfort. And Sicario deserves praise, not an implicit sneer, for acknowledging that even a highly-trained FBI agent like Kate would likely be unable to overpower an equally highly-trained man—a point that Emily Blunt herself made in an interview: "She isn't actually an action heroine, this character, she's a female cop and the reality is she would be overpowered by a guy that size, that, that is the reality. She hasn't got the perfect thing to say, or she can knock out any guy. She's not that girl. It has to be desperate, like she's fighting for her life." A man rescuing a woman onscreen is not automatically anti-feminist. Especially when the white knight in question later shoots the woman for interfering with him, and later still threatens to kill her.)
At the bottom of this difference of opinion, I think, is a need that some people seem to have for very clear signposts of a film's moral framework. This is most evident in another comparison Nayman makes:
The finale, which finds Alejandro threatening Kate’s life over the possibility of her ratting out the team, basically restages a near-identical scenario in No Country for Old Men, except those old anti-humanist monsters the Coens found a way in Kelly Macdonald’s confrontation with Javier Bardem to contrast her literal helplessness with his fundamental moral weakness. Her character’s refusal to call the fateful coin-flip that had killed off so many (male) characters before her is the lone, true act of strength in No Country for Old Men, and it pointedly ruptures the story’s basic framework (it’s no surprise that Bardem gets hit by a car right after being so boldly rejected).
I don't know whether Nayman has read Cormac McCarthy's novel, or whether he's aware that the scene he describes isn't in it. McCarthy, who has zero tolerance for bullshit, has Carla Jean call heads; the coin comes up tails, and Chigurh kills her. (He still gets hit by the car afterward.) I like the Coens' adaptation a whole lot, but their decision to alter this scene, giving Carla Jean more of a backbone, was fundamentally cowardly, not humanistic. It's designed to provide the viewer with a warm, fuzzy feeling, even in the face of unspeakable evil: At least she defied him, refused to take part. We can reassure ourselves that we would do the same. It's as if 1984 had actually ended by having Winston realize his plan to secretly, mentally unleash the full force of his hatred for Big Brother one millisecond before his brains are blown out. But Orwell had something bleaker and more powerfully upsetting in mind, and so does Sicario. Its so-called ugliness is strategic.