Wednesday, January 20, 2016
Sicario and the Silence of the Lambs
When I first saw the great Sicario, I quickly noticed a similarity between Villeneuve's film and the 1991 Jonathan Demme classic The Silence of the Lambs. But while Sicario has deservedly received lots of attention and plenty of good analysis, I've read only a handful of reviews that mention it alongside Demme's film. And those that have mainly refer to it briefly, with quick references to the similarity between Emily Blunt's Kate Macer and Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling, largely due to the fact that here are two thrillers with FBI women operating in a precarious man's world. Besides that, the best you'll get is that both women are taken from their comfort zones and confronted with Evil.
Scott Tobias came closest to getting at something between the two movies in his review of Sicario, not only deeming it to be "the next Silence of the Lambs," but even citing specific parallels between the scenes when Macer is questioned and then recruited by Matt (Josh Brolin) and other men of power and the moment in Lambs when Starling is left alone in a room full of cops, who "look at her like she's just barged into a men's locker room." He's getting at the aforementioned idea of the intimidating aspect of a woman operating in a man's world, but that's about as much discussion I've found on the issue (granted, it's a review for GQ, so even if he wanted to, Tobias wouldn't have the room to examine the comparison much further).
There are several other ways in which one could compare these movies (i.e. symbolism, like the head with the moth in it in Lambs and the dead body in Sicario whose head is covered in a plastic with the edges sticking upward like devil horns--or the fact that both films climax with night vision scenes), but for now I'm simply going to look at the relationship between Macer and Starling, with an emphasis on their behavior and how the fact that they're woman impacts the respective worlds they find themselves in.
From a feminist perspective, it's clear why it's a big deal to have central female characters in these two films (particularly in Sicario, since we live in an age of ever-growing pressure to provide women with empowering roles-Macer joins Furiosa from Mad Max and Rey from the new Star Wars as the standouts of 2015). But while it's easy to draw a comparison between these characters because they're women working in a man's world, the comparison mostly stops there, which is actually something I find quite interesting. And that's not even considering the nature of their jobs: Macer is more focused on action and is an expert on kidnapping response, while Lambs emphasizes that Starling is merely competent when it comes to the physical aspects of her job (see the mock home invasion scene and the climax of the film) and is better suited to nitty-gritty details, observation, and psychological study.
Lambs makes it clear that despite her qualifications, Starling is out of place both among the psychiatrists and doctors involved with Hannibal Lecter, and the cops who are in the hunt for the killer Buffalo Bill. Demme stresses this visually in the elevator scene where Starling is surrounded by men in red polos, her face tilted upward like she's trapped by red-blooded male dominance, and in the scene mentioned by Tobias where the cops silently judge her, like she's violating a macho code of exclusion. It's also more blatantly expressed in an early scene where Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), the slimy doctor in charge of Lecter, quickly deviates from general info about Lecter to comment that "we get a lot of detectives around here, but I must say can't ever remember one as attractive." And then, later, he comments that it was a clever move having Starling assigned to talk to Lecter, to get a "pretty, young woman to turn him on." While her skills and her stamina should be and largely are the incentives for bringing her into the case, Chilton is partly right here. In dealing with someone as twisted and intelligent as Lecter, the fact that Starling is a woman might be a solution to getting the stubbornly guarded Lecter to disclose information. Either way, the film makes it clear that it is unusual to have Starling in this situation, which ultimately only makes her resourcefulness and tenacity in the face of both gender conflict and chilling evil all the more impressive.
I'm less inclined to hold these viewpoints when I think of Macer. The fact that she's a woman actually is far less significant to the narrative or the other characters. This is a reflection both of a contemporary need for women to appear in roles traditionally designated for men, and because Macer's sexuality doesn't necessarily impact the film in any large way (with the exception of a scene where an attempt at a one night stand with a crooked cop nearly gets her killed). The fact that this a woman in a man's world is given far less weight than in Lambs. Even the scene recruitment Tobias mentioned alongside the "lockeroom" scene (or the interchangeable elevator scene) in Lambs plays down the fact that Macer is a woman in favor of simply giving the scene a sense of eerie strangeness. Who are these guys talking to her and what do they want? Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins shoot the scene such that the men are all seated and looking up at Macer, who is standing. While it clearly separates her from the men, it also gives her a sense of autonomy as she learns she will be joining a special task force to take down an evil drug lord based on what she's done (namely, she's good at breaking down doors, but they word in fancier, more appealing terms: she'll be a "liaison," because they need someone with "tactical experience"). We'll eventually learn that she's involved not so much for her achievements but for who she is, but this has nothing to do with the fact that she's a woman.
After all, during the recruitment scene, Macer is also considered for the job alongside her male partner, Reggie. Reggie, however, is turned down because his credentials are too good (a tour in Iraq sounds nice, but when Matt learns he has a law degree as well, he quickly dismisses him. "No lawyers on this train," he says, the first indication that there's something shady about the job at hand). Macer, however, is simply a thumper, 5 and 0, and when Matt hears this and says "I like her already," you get an inkling that he wants someone with grit who gets things done and doesn't question authority figures. That's the exact opposite reason why Starling was recruited. The only real similarity then would be the fact that both of these woman are brought into situations by powerful men who conceal their motivations in order to gain their support. Though she suspects it, Starling isn't initially told that her recruitment is intended to help the police in finding Buffalo Bill, while Macer remains completely ignorant for most of the film that she's needed simply because "CIA can't operate in U.S. borders without a domestic agency attached." Needless to say, Macer's job is the far more thankless of the two.
This is simply to get at the why of the presence of these two FBI women in these two films who are asked to augment missions to catch dangerous men. It seems that their sex and that they're FBI are the only truly concrete parallels we can make between them. And once we get into the real action of the films' respective plots and these characters' involvement in them, the separation only increases. Starling's progression through the narrative she finds herself in is a movement from subordination to power. Any sense that she's simply being used by the men above her is diminished when Crawford and his men mistake the location of Bill while Starling, working alone, successfully solves the mystery of his whereabouts and proceeds to kill him.
Macer's progression however is the exact opposite: initially she's made to be an important figure in the Task Force's mission to take out the cartel, but when she's confronted with the shady dealings and morality of her superiors, as well as the senseless violence that everyone else seems just to shrug at (evinced most clearly in the brilliant Juarez sequence where a shootout occurs in Border traffic, and dead bodies are left as nothing but litter thrown from a car), she begins to crumble. She becomes confused, terrified, and overly stressed as her sense of agency dwindles and her questions are ignored. "You're asking me how a watch works," says Matt's enigmatic partner Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). "For now let's keep an eye on the time." Not the greatest answer for a woman who, when asked what to tell the U.S. attorneys after a bunch of dead bodies are found in the walls of a house at the beginning of the film, answers simply and resolutely "the truth." Macer wants to follow the rules, and her progression in the film is the realization that in the world of quashing drug cartels, rules are undermined by convenience. What we mainly get of Macer after she's initially established as a woman of power and resolve is someone who frets and smokes lots of cigarettes in desperation. This is not, by the way, a critique of her character, as her response to her situation is quite understandable. Her frailty makes her seem more human, while Starling's display of brilliance in Lambs makes her seem almost super-human, but also more emotionally distant.
The Silence of the Lambs concludes with Starling being rewarded for her services, while Macer is left staring off of a balcony at a world far more terrifying for her than it was at the beginning of the film. While she had thick skin when it came to dealing with violence, part of this had to do with her understanding of American principles and a fairly simplistic perspective wherein bad people must be caught, the truth must be told, and the American constitution must be adhered to (literally, she basically says that at one point in the movie). Now she's left wondering what hold those principles have when the real truth is that violence can't be stopped, but only subdued, and that the means to this are not grounded in anything concrete, but are made up and quickly altered whenever necessary.
Both films end with these women receiving "calls" from the men who make the worlds of these respective films so terrifying. Lecter phones Starling to say that he will not pursue her and that he wants her to do the same. Starling refuses. Macer gets an actual visit from Alejandro, who asks her to sign a confidentially agreement, which she also refuses. But Alejandro eventually coerces her with a gun to the head, and Macer signs.
In refusing to heed to Lecter's request, Starling is throwing herself into the world of evil that she's just encountered as if to say my job has only just begun. Macer, on the other hand, is essentially kicked out of the world she found herself in. "You're not a wolf," Alejandro tells her as he advises her to move away. "And you're in the land of wolves now."
It seems then that these movies, through their female protagonists, offer two very different takes on how to deal with evil. While they both conclude with very scary final shots revealing the presence of evil in our everyday lives (in Lambs we get Lecter walking through a crowded city, blending in with everyone else, while Sicario shows a group of kids playing soccer while ominous gunfire is heard in the distance), Lambs makes it clear that the fight will go on because of steadfast folks like Starling, and that the killers will be taken down. Sicario distances itself from this perspective and instead concludes that if there is any solution, it is compromise, and if there will ever be a victory, it will come at the expense of the principles that people like Macer construct their identities around.
To close, you might wonder, what is the value in looking at these two films and their female protagonists side by side? Without getting into the constructiveness of comparing different things for its own sake, we might conclude that it's useful to look at these movies together as two examples of different types of cultural fascination with evil, and how Clarice Starling and Kate Macer respectively represent different attitudes towards these types of evil. The Silence of the Lambs can be see as a culmination of sorts of a decades long American fascination with the serial killer. While serial killers have been around for centuries, when we talk about the truly notorious ones, the lion's share of them operated between the 1960s and the 1990s. It's fitting then that Lecter arrived on the big screen when he did (Brian Cox did play him in Michael Mann's excellent 1986 film Manhunter, but he wasn't immortalized as a character until Hopkins' role in Lambs): at the tail end of what might be called the serial killer era, we get the most twisted and terrifying and complex of them all. I don't buy into the idea that Lecter's escape at the end is a reflection on audience sympathies with him. I think it's simpler than that, that he is too cunning and too twisted to handle, and yet the film concludes with the notion that because of people like Clarice Starling, these monsters will always be hunted and never given the chance to fulfill their killing fantasies without getting caught.
In Sicario, we find a different America, the America where the focus has shifted from a fascination and repulsion over these individuals towards violent groups who carry out vicious acts that get copious amounts of media attention. The fear has moved from things inside our own country to things outside it that we're terrified will get in. ISIS and the Mexican drug cartels are the two clearest examples, and because we have visual access to the crimes committed by these groups, our fear is more immediate and paranoia-inducing. Sicario, and also the documentary Cartel Land, take cautious and largely pessimistic approaches to such issues, suggesting that the inefficiency of the law and the savage nature of these evil groups have rendered our nation frightened and helpless.
As Starling represented the unwavering dedication to stopping evil in The Silence of the Lambs, Macer is the example of a national decline in morale as a whole. This evil can be stopped, but at this point, Sicario suggests, we have solutions that are unsettling at best.