Or, Give Me Ripley Over Macer Any Day
(Warning: spoilers for Sicario and Training Day.)
I finally got to Dennis Villeneuve’s Sicario in my Netflix queue last week. I’d heard good things about it and I like the lead actors, so I was excited to watch it. The first half of the movie didn’t disappoint. What a taut thriller! I was quite literally on the edge of my seat during the highway confrontation. I wholly sympathized with Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer character. She’s cool and competent in the face of the film’s opening horrors, but not as hardened by the war on drugs as Benicio del Toro’s chilly veteran, Alejandro Gillick. She wants payback for what she’s seen, but not at any cost. When she sees Gillick and the CIA bad-guy setting up an assassination rather than a prosecution, she tries to stop it by going over their heads to her supervisor. That the film gives her idealism short-shrift is understandable. If there’s a moral message to the film it’s that America is losing the war on drugs not because of what we’re doing, but because of what we’re not willing to do.
But the second half of the movie repulsed me. Not because of Macer’s complicity in the assassination of the Mexican drug lords, or the way her own agency and the CIA turn on her. She’s a whistleblower, and a woman. I wholly believed the “old boys” closing ranks on her. What disgusted me was the way the film portrayed her as increasingly incompetent. The woman who sent her queasy (male) partner outside for air while she unflinchingly showed her superiors around the Chandler house of horrors is reduced over and over. First she has to be rescued from her hook-up turned hitman. Then she has her gun shot out of her hands in the tunnel incursion and is reduced to watching her partner’s “six.” She ends the movie in trembling paralysis, unable to kill Gillick even after he’s destroyed her career and threatened her life. What happened to the competent kidnap-response team commander?
If the point in eroding Macer’s competence this way was to show what happens to American soldiers in guerrilla warfare, then I just don’t buy it. With the exception of the seduction-turned-assassination attempt, her male partner is exposed to pretty much the same circumstances, and he doesn’t fall apart. Is the hidden point that women can’t hack it in war? Or that a woman’s sexuality makes her incapable of being an effective soldier? What is the film saying in having the (male) character that Macer looks to for guidance and approval being the one who destroys her career? Is it telling that the moment Macer quite literally lets her hair down, dresses and behaves like a woman, she’s attacked and nearly killed before Gillick rescues her?
The final scenes of the movie reduce Macer beyond incompetence, to the point of childishness. Gillick makes this abundantly clear when he threatens her and then tells her she looks like his lost daughter when she’s frightened. She’s tiny, barefoot and weaponless as she confronts him. Teary and helpless as he forces her into complicity with the CIA’s very dark political agenda. In one of the film’s most beautiful lines, Gillick tells her to run away to a small town where the rule of law still exists because she’s not a wolf, “and this is a land of wolves now.” Gorgeous language, but what does it say? Women are lambs? Women must be relegated to small-town America where they can be protected? The language may be beautiful but the message is not.
Would Macer’s character have been so reduced if she was a man? Maybe, but comparing Sicario to another thriller that had a similar message, I think not. That movie is Training Day, and although the message is the same, the treatment of the point-of-view rookie character is very different. Ethan Hawke’s character Jake Hoyt suffers a similar erosion of his high moral stance: taking drugs and participating (even if unwillingly) in the murder of a drug dealer. But Hoyt isn’t reduced to trembling inaction. He outwits Denzel Washington’s corrupt veteran and leaves him to a much-deserved fate. That’s a sharp contrast to Macer, outmaneuvered and left stranded Juliette-like on her apartment balcony while the titular hitman (who has now stolen everything from her, including her movie) turns his back on her and walks away.
I’m not asking for every female action hero to be Ellen Ripley. And I don’t mind morally murky films. I’m fine with an ending that shows we’re not winning whatever war we’re fighting: we’re just creating more and more victims. What I mind is making the female action hero one of them.