Taylor Sheridan Pens Another Awe-Filled Descent Into Border Horror
Early in the film, Matthew Modine’s politician James Riley looks into a news camera and issues the central tenet of the film. Roughly: “You terrorists do not terrify us, you strengthen our resolve to unleash the most terrifying force on the planet: The full weight of the United States military.” If the cartels moved the needle of immorality and societal decay in Sicario, it’s the United States itself that haunts Sicario: Day Of The Soldado.
Never quite better than Sicario in most any regard from direction to score to script, Day Of The Soldado is nevertheless an excellent horror film masquerading as a border action thriller that catapults the burgeoning Sicario franchise into even more devastatingly brutal territory. I hate to deal in sweeping overture, but screenwriter Taylor Sheridan came out of the gate swinging with Sicario in 2015, then Hell Or High Water, Wind River, and now this. Perhaps it’s not too early to dub him a master of contemporary American crime thrillers? Each of those films offers a crackling piece of entertainment that is simultaneously inextricable from the bleak and deep-cutting human issues of today. Sicario and it’s sequel pull any kind of possible curtain back from the motives and black hearts of those in power both in the cartels and in the fighting forces of the “good guys” battling them; in doing so they rank among the most urgent films set on the Texas-Mexico border.
Previously Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer (and her partner played by Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya) had been our cyphers, guiding us into a world right next to our own, but operating under different rules and setting a new standard of barbarity. The terror of Sicario was revealed through Kate’s journey from a by-the-books American officer to an agent who has been in the trenches of the very dirtiest of wars. Blunt is incredible in the role, rising to the occasion and proving her capability, she’s nevertheless too good of a person to go down the roads that Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin’s characters trod as the blunt hammers of the United States. So there’s no question that losing Blunt was a blow to any potential Sicario sequel. But narratively, Sheridan uses this to remove the franchise’s moral compass, allowing Day Of The Soldado to be even more nihilistic. Sheridan does not think very highly of the tactics of the United States military, it would seem; even if its capabilities are depicted with a sense of awe.
It should be mentioned that Sicario was helmed by Denis Villeneuve, shot by Roger Deakins, and scored by Johann Johannson. It was an A-list project that became one of the very best films of 2015. Sadly, we’ve lost Johannson and Day of the Soldado is touchingly dedicated to his memory. 13 time Oscar nominee and one-time winner Deakins made Sicario one of the most visually impressive films in recent memory, drawing beauty out of the border and also revealing its horror. And Villeneuve is on a hot streak on par with Sheridan’s, becoming a sort of sci-fi wunderkind in recent years with Arrival, Blade Runner 2049, and the upcoming Dune re-boots. I mention all of this because the pedigree of Sicario is unassailable. It’s therefore not an insult to say that Day Of The Soldado never quite reaches the heights of craft that the first film did. But rather, it’s a bit of a miracle that Day Of The Soldado is as impressive and potent as it ultimately is. Italian director Stefano Sollima (son of famed director Sergio Sollima and creator on the tv series Gommorah) absolutely holds his own following in the considerable footsteps of Villeneuve, imbuing Day Of The Soldado with a similar sense of visual awe and shying away from precisely zero of the violence the drug war inflicts upon its combatants and bystanders.
This time around, the inciting incident is basically the US government just trying to start some shit. Yes, there’s a domestic terrorist bombing that is an absolute gut punch to watch. But the result of the bombing is that the US tries to squeeze Mexican cartels into their definition of terrorism so that they can unleash Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and his crack team of black ops soldiers on the Mexican cartels without any rules to speak of. Graver will recruit Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro (whom we’ve watched kill women and children in order to gain his revenge against the cartels for the deaths of his own wife and daughter) to start a war between the cartels.
I don’t know if you’ve heard this one before, but wars tend to get people killed. And soon enough, after their attempt to kidnap a cartel leader’s daughter (Isabela Moner holding her own amongst a bunch of tough guys) and blame it on another cartel lead to the deaths of dozens of Mexican police officers, the US government gets cold feet about their war-starting, and all hell breaks loose.
It could be hard for wide audiences to enjoy Day Of The Soldado. Virtually every character dwells in the muck of violence and crime, dealing death and causing injustice even as they enact the policies of the US government or seek vengeance against evil that may be fractionally worse than their own. It’s a total horror show. Hildur Guðnadóttir steps into Johannson’s shoes unleashing yet another white-knuckle score that wrings dread out of you at every turn. Sheridan’s screenplay is just so nihilistic and loaded with detail as to feel documentary-like. (Think The Wire on the border). You watch the Sicario films and you think: “Yeah, it probably really is this bad, and our government probably is this culpable.” The tension and action set pieces are edge-of-your-seat throughout, but the emotion one feels when watching is more dread and fear than excitement or titillation.
Sicario: Day Of The Soldado is grimy, awe-inspiring, horrific, and occasionally a little silly or over the top. It’s not the masterwork that its predecessor was, but it more than justifies its own existence and ultimately begs for more chapters in this sordid tale to be told. I’d absolutely welcome further chapters in the Sicario saga assuming Taylor Sheridan continues to fill their pages with pulpy prophecy and vitriol towards our amoral overlords.
And I’m Out.