Tropes and absolute truths

Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth— Simone de Beauvoir

It might be a little early to be talking about Sicario: Day of the Soldado since it just opened this past weekend but that’s what I’m going to do. There might be spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet. For those who don’t care about spoilers, keep on reading if you like.

I spent Friday night watching Sicario: Day of the Soldado. I enjoyed the first film, Sicario, so why wouldn’t I like the sequel. I did like the sequel. But it’s not without some issues.

I had heard about about the criticisms surrounding the film brought about by film critics of colour. We know that Hollywood/entertainment industry has a problem with representation on the silver screen and how people of colour (POC), women and the LGBTQ are portrayed on film. There is also a problem where the majority of film critics are white men.

Having found some Latino critics who saw the film, they all took issue with the portrayal of anybody who wasn’t white. Stereotypes and tropes were used to move the story forward. All stuff that I had heard before.

I’m not saying the film’s screenwriter, Taylor Sheridan can’t write because he can. An Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Hell or High Water proves that. Yes? No? He has worked hard to get where he is right now.

One film critic has said Sicario: Day fo the Soldado suffered from lazy writing. And I would have to agree. For example, the opening scene showed a terrorist illegally crossing the Mexico-U.S. border with other migrants. The initial premise was presented that the cartels are assisting terrorists get into the U.S. and that was the impetus for the film. It turns out this premise is a red herring. A couple of seemingly throw away remarks by Cynthia that two of the ‘terrorists’ were actually from New Jersey, makes the film’s opening scene kinda wasted. What we basically have is a film about the American government illegally operating in Mexico stirring up shit between the cartels for no legitimate reason. This action is not without consequences in the long term because this will increase the bloodshed in that country. America will never own up to instigating more blood being spilled in another country.

Way to go, U.S. government. Way. To. Go. Where the fuck are my pompoms?

The fact that the terrorists were home-grown and that it was dismissively swept under the rug in the film, mirrors the reluctance by a percentage of Americans who refuse to consider the idea of domestic terrorism.

It’s hard to say if this red herring was intentionally written by Sheridan. But the way the throwaway remarks were made by Cynthia makes one think they were inserted into the script to save a storyline that might have gotten out of hand in the writing process or during film production.

After I watched the film, I came across an analysis piece written by Isaac Butler for slate.com about Sheridan, who also wrote the first film, Sicario. To be honest, I agreed with everything in Butler’s analysis.

Some of the highlights from his analysis:

1) Sheridan’s lack of agency for his female characters (Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer, Catherine Keener’s Cynthia Foards and Isabela Moner’s Isabela Reyes) which plays into the idea that the male characters holding all the power and the knowledge of what was going on the two films.

Yes, Blunt’s character, Kate, was the lead in the first film but Kate always seemed to be a step behind and kept in the dark by Josh Brolin’s character Matt Graver. The character had a specific role, was a particular archetype within Sheridan’s narrative. Maybe it wouldn’t have been as noticeable Blunt’s character was portrayed by a male actor. But it is noticeable when the character is female. The politics of gender colours everything.

Keener’s character, Cynthia, is a representative from the CIA and supposedly carries some weight. Well, I think she’s from the CIA. I wasn’t quite clear on her position. A second viewing of the film would solve that problem. Anyway, her character seems to be nothing more a mouth piece for the President and when the shit seems close to hitting the fan, she is lumped with the task of administratively cleaning up the mess. Pretty much the men around her end up doing whatever they want.

Then we have Moner’s character, Isabela, the daughter of a cartel leader. Isabela showed a lot of spunk getting into a fight with another student at an all-girl private school. But after that, she’s a victim and a pawn in the game the CIA plays with the warring Mexican cartels. She’s an interesting character with not a of room to maneuver within the narrative.

2) Aside from the lack of agency for the female characters, POC don’t seem go beyond the tropes of criminals. Heck, even the white characters don’t seem to go beyond their assigned tropes either. Everyone is a little more than two dimensional but never really reaches three dimensional territory.

3) What does Sheridan’s America look like? As Butler puts it, Sheridan’s America is where “men do manly-man things.” A guy’s guy is another way of describing it. Any female protagonist in Sheridan’s screenplays is somehow sidelined by the men around her or is in need of their help because of some self-perceived weakness that they acknowledge to having. And we’re back to the issue of Sheridan’s female characters lacking agency.

After reading through Butler’s analysis, there are some things I’d like to say.

It’s pretty clear Sheridan is critical of the American government. And he tries to work in the grey area that exists between good and bad. But when you work with tropes, that grey area sometimes doesn’t get explored very well. Sheridan tries in Sicario. Any grey area he hints at or tries to touch on is mitigated by Kate’s lack of agency. The male characters lack grey area. del Toro’s Alejandro comes closest to being a complex character. His motivations for being a sicario are explained and his interactions with Kate are coloured by his motivations.

In my opinion, adherence to genre, stereotypes and tropes are part of the reason for the problems that exist in Sicario and Sicario: Day of the Soldado. But the second film suffers from a screenplay that quite doesn’t match up to the first film. I think it suffers too from the fact Denis Villeneuve, Emily Blunt and the late cinematographer Roger Deakins were not part of the production of the second film. There were moments that I thought were really interesting and thought-provoking. But the reliance on stereotypes and tropes in order to tell the story is problematic. I can’t stress that enough.

It’s stuff like this that motivates me to try to avoid in my own writing. I don’t know how successful I will be in avoiding it but I can certainly do my best to not fall into that rabbit hole.

Apparently, Sheridan had said that the screenplay for Sicario: Day of the Soldado wasn’t intended to be a sequel to the first film. It was supposed to be a standalone. But before the film hit theatres nationwide, there were stories reporting that the idea of a third film is being discussed, with Blunt returning to reprise her character, Kate Macer, to finish the trilogy.

Well, I have a few thoughts on the idea of a Sicario trilogy and if the third film is actually made.

1) If there is a trilogy, the final film must include the characters Isabela Reyes and Miguel Hernandez, the boy/man who is recruited by Alejandro to become a sicario at the end of the film. Given what the second film hints at as their fates, their individual story arcs need to be played out in the third film.

2) If Miguel returns (and the film certainly hints that we probably haven’t see the last of him), I would like to see how the relationship between Miguel and Alejandro has evolved from the second film to the third film. Are they still student and mentor? Are they working together? What are Alejandro’s motivations for taking Miguel under his wing to shape him into a sicario?

Considering how Miguel and Alejandro first lay eyes on each other and how it escalated to Miguel being forced to shoot Alejandro, it is interesting Alejandro is giving Miguel to the opportunity become a hitman. Does Alejandro know that Miguel was the one who shot him before he made the offer to show Miguel the ropes a year later? Hard to say how Alejandro would know this since those who knew Miguel was his ‘executioner’ are all dead. Does this become a surrogate father/son relationship? Depending on what both characters know about each other, this is a relationship that can end up being very good for the men or turn into a complete disaster. The interesting thing is both characters were inherently good men before cartels and gangs entered their lives and changed them. The potential of this relationship and how it will play intrigues me a lot.

3) What happens when Matt Graver discovers Alejandro survived his execution? Or does he know Alejandro is alive before the start of the third film? How will their relationship play out?

4) If Blunt returns, what is her narrative now? Will her character, Kate, finally have agency instead of questioning everything and being seemingly a step behind everybody she works with? Can she finally play the game everyone else is playing while inhabiting the ‘good guy’ archetype? Or maybe she’s not the ‘good guy’ anymore. Maybe Kate inhabits the grey areas between good and bad. The fluidity of changing sides is one of the most interesting ideas to explore and play with. This is why Kate’s character development from first film to third film could be so rich if written to take this direction. The potential for her character to become one of the most interesting and dynamic characters in the third film is limitless.

It’s clear that in Sheridan’s world, everybody is flawed. There are no outright good guys. But he still follows certain tropes. For the third film to succeed, not being a slave to archetypes and tropes, showing more complexity of the characters through subtext will be paramount.

There is a bit to unpack in the Sicario films. There is no denying the fact the screenplays were written by a white man. I don’t think that is a problem if the story and the characters are handled fairly. But, the definition of ‘handled fairly’ can be subjective. Maybe we need to understand Sheridan’s perception of the world. Or maybe not. But it is a specific kind of world Sheridan puts down on paper. It is a world where men’s experiences and views of the world are taken as absolute truths. From those absolute truths is a particular viewpoint with regards to women and POC. That viewpoint will rub some people the wrong way. As a storyteller, it really is impossible to make everybody happy. You just tell your story no matter what.

It’s also a given that that particular viewpoint can (and usually does) go against having an honest representation of those whose skin colour is not white. We all have our own viewpoints and truths. But one specific viewpoint should not always repeatedly be presented as the absolute truth.