The thing I love about Taylor Sheridan as a screenwriter is that he doesn’t overdo the exposition and yet still manages to tell complex stories. He trusts the audience’s intelligence, and as a result, his movies turn out to be incredibly complex character studies as well as action/thriller/western classics. He has been on a roll with Sicario in 2015, Hell or High Water in 2016, and Wind River in 2017 (which he also directed). You’d be hard pressed to find a screenwriter with that kind of hot streak in such a short period of time.
Sicario: Day of the Soldado is his first sequel, and he knocks it out of the park, again. That is because, instead of making a straight-up sequel to the border thriller from 2015, he just wrote another interesting story that happens to include some of the same characters. It has a totally different structure, is about a different aspect of the conflict on the border, and is only related to its predecessor in tone and the two stars, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro.
The story is dark, perhaps even darker than the first installment. It starts with a terrorist attack in Missouri, perpetrated by some men that were thought to be helped across the border by the drug cartels. The US government wants to go to war with the cartels, but knows it will be easier if they are at each other’s throats, so they release our black ops friends from the first film to cause some chaos on the border.
The way they decide to go about doing this is by kidnapping the daughter of one cartel leader and blaming another cartel for the kidnapping. This sets in motion the events that comprise the body of the film.
The story almost never goes as I expected it to, which is perhaps why I enjoyed it so much. It also does a deep dive into Benicio Del Toro’s character, who in the last film seemed like a closed book of darkness. We get to understand him a bit more, and although we may not agree with his decisions, I believe we have compassion for his circumstances, which is the biggest twist in the film is able to pull off, in my opinion.
It is a very different movie from the first one, so if you are going in wanting more of the same, you will be a bit disappointed. It’s lacking the moral center that Emily Blunt’s character provided us in Sicario. As an audience member I felt a bit untethered, which I believe is by the filmmakers design. It also lacks the visual flare that Sicario director Denis Villeneuve brought with cinematographer Roger Deakins. The structure is more linear than the first as well.
Even without those things, this is filmmaking at its best. Italian director Stefano Sollima does a great job of making the material his own. Instead of focusing on the cities at the border, this film depicts it as a wild desert. There are many beautiful overhead shots that allude to the isolation of those in the frames. There is a scene at night in the desert that is shot beautifully even though it’s the most horrific thing these movies has yet to show us. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski has his own lense through which he sees this broken border conflict, and makes use of the camera in interesting ways that prove he is more than just a stand-in for the legendary Deakins.
This movie is coming out at a time when the border is in the headlines daily, and brings up a whole host of issues that we as a country are not even thinking about. Terrorism, human trafficking, Americans on the border participating in illegal immigration, etc. It shows immigration is a business, too, and that tightening borders can be very good for business. It doesn’t really help the debate any or chose a side, but perhaps it shows us how futile all our attempts to fix the problem really are.
This film series, at its essence, is about futility when facing these complex situations. The first shows the futility of morality against the backdrop of wicked men. No one ends up winning. This film takes that a step forward and shows that no good deed goes unpunished, and how fluid the idea of right and wrong is in the wild west of the Mexican/American border.
As long as there is money to be made, people are going to try to make that money, no matter the cost otherwise (ethically, morally, etc.). It doesn’t mean that we stop trying to make things right, to pursue justice, but perhaps the pursuit of justice or goodness is the goal, knowing that as humans, we may never fully realize it on this earth. And even if our work is undone or proves to be futile, doing the good work was worthy and speaks more about who we are than if we just give up.
The Sicario series is a great example of character mattering over ends. In most films we are told the ends justify the means, but in the world of Sicario, where nothing ends well, it’s who we are on the journey that matters. I can’t wait to see what Taylor Sheridan cooks up for the conclusion to this trilogy.