STORYTELLING STRATEGIES: Sicario’s Vanishing Main Character

Paul Joseph Gulino is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright, whose book, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach has been adopted as a textbook at universities around the globe.

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STORYTELLING STRATEGIES: Sicario's Vanishing Main Character by Paul Gulino | Script Magazine #scriptchat

Kate (Emily Blunt) spends most of Sicario on the outside looking in.

Sicario is a powerful cinematic experience from a visual and aural viewpoint, but some curious storytelling choices about the main character ultimately diminish its impact.

Writing a movie with passive main character is a challenge; the conventional storytelling wisdom is that a main character needs to be active, needs to want something and pursue it. The hero on his journey, the character who wants something badly and is having trouble getting it. If the character is sympathetic, his or her struggle against obstacles creates tension within the audience that keeps us glued to the screen and inspires us to tell our friends to go see it.

Of course, the conventional wisdom is wrong: there have been plenty of successful films with passive main characters; characters who are confused, or aimless, or just killing time, who don’t want something with any real passion, and don’t struggle particularly hard to get it.

Films such as The Graduate (1967), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and In Bruges (2008) come to mind.

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is a good example of a main character without a strong objective, at least in the first two thirds of the picture.

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is a good example of a main character without a strong objective, at least in the first two thirds of the picture.

These films follow alternative strategies to keep us glued to the screen. The Graduate (written by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry and directed by Mike Nichols) gives us a large dose of dramatic irony to create excitement during the bulk of the film: hope that Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) will keep his affair secret, and fear that he’ll be exposed. Eventually, Benjamin does find something to desire: Elaine (Katherine Ross), and he pursues her relentlessly, but this does not occur till the last third of the picture.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (written by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman and directed by Milos Forman) features one R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), whose primary goal is to play cards, smoke, party as hearty as he can and otherwise shirk physical labor. Here, the storytellers use a variety of strategies: dramatic irony (we know McMurphy’s game, but the authorities don’t); a deadline (McMurphy’s trial period at the institution), and conflicts within the scenes and sequences (with Nurse Ratched and the orderlies).

In Bruges (written and directed by Martin McDonagh) features Ray (Colin Farrell), a man who really, really wants to leave Bruges, Belgium, but doesn’t do much about it, occupying his time with sex, drugs and fist fights. Here, the storyteller uses a deadline (the two week period they must remain in the city), and dramatic irony (the audience learns that his accomplice and friend Ken [Brendan Gleeson] has been ordered to kill him) to keep us engaged in the story.

Kate Macer: On the Outside Looking In

Sicario (written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by Denis Villeneuve) is a story of vengeance; however, the person who suffered wrong and is seeking revenge (Alejandro, played by Benicio Del Toro) is not the main character. That would be Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent who is brought in to participate in an anti-drug operation on the Mexican border with some CIA/Delta Force individuals led by Matt Graber (Josh Brolin).

Kate is invited to participate, but not told much of anything about what they are doing. She’s always one step behind, is given vague warnings, and is left outside the loop. Eventually we learn that the plan is to extract a high value member of the Juarez-based drug cartel from a Mexican prison into CIA custody, where he can be tortured into giving up vital information that will lead to the leader of the cartel.

During the extraction operation, Kate is only along for the ride, and while everyone else is in a gunfight with bad guys, her only accomplishment is almost getting herself killed because she doesn’t obey Matt’s order to get out of her vehicle.

The bad guy gets interrogated, but Kate is not the one doing it, and when that interrogation leads to information about a secret tunnel into Mexico, she’s invited to participate in a military operation into the tunnel (without being told the purpose of the operation). Her contribution: she winds up nearly messing everything up, and gets shot for her trouble.

Thus, for more than two-thirds of the movie, our main character is largely passive and sidelined, a person looking in from the outside, unsure of what is going on around her, questioning things people are doing without effect, worrying about what’s going on, having sex with the wrong person (and having to be rescued), and coming close to accidentally sabotaging the whole operation.

Still, the storytelling is propelled forcefully forward by the nature of the material: life and death combat situations conducted in pursuit of heinous criminals, enhanced by three elements screenwriters can’t rely on: superb performances, a beautifully relentless and discordant score, and powerful visual realization.

But those will only get you so far, and in this case they carry the storytellers only to the third act, where the storytelling goes strangely awry. Here, vengeance is delivered upon the monstrous drug lord in a very suspenseful sequence, but it’s delivered by Alejandro, while our main character is safely stateside. Thus during the climactic moments of the film, she’s offscreen.

This leads ultimately to a let-down, and perhaps confusion about what the whole point of the film was. Sometimes you just have to murder a drug lord’s innocent kids because he’s killed yours?

In Bruges’ Disappearing Main Character

Ray (right, played by Colin Farrell) has little to do except hang around Bruges. Deadlines and dramatic irony propel the action, rather than a character with a strong drive.

Ray (right, played by Colin Farrell) has little to do except hang around Bruges. Deadlines and dramatic irony propel the action, rather than a character with a strong drive.

Curiously, In Bruges treads in similar territory. At the end of the second act of that film, the action is propelled largely by Ken rather than the main character Ray. Ken is the one who decides not to kill Ray, and instead gives him money and puts him on a train so he can escape. It is Ken, not Ray, who must face crime boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) and make the case for Ray’s life. Ray is, like Kate in Sicario, offscreen for these critical scenes in the third act.

However, storyteller McDonagh avoids the problem Sicario suffers by having Ray return against his will to Bruges, in time to face his fate at last.

Toward a Solution

Movies about drug lords and law enforcement have been so numerous that it’s difficult to come up with a fresh angle, and certainly Sicario’s approach provides that. But how to work the storytelling to make that ending more satisfying?

The obvious choice is to make the person seeking vengeance the main character. Such a move would provide greater unity and force to the picture. However, that may just be too obvious, and familiar.  An alternative would be to simply make Kate more active. Perhaps it was a storytelling mistake to have the CIA/Deltas invite her to participate, then shunt her aside while they do the important stuff.

The reason given—that it’s illegal for the CIA to conduct operations on American soil without an FBI agent present so they want her along to make it all legal—ultimately proves ludicrous, given how much illegal stuff these guys seem to be doing. In fact, a most unfortunate scene occurs near the end of the picture, when Alejandro tries to force Kate at gunpoint to sign some document presumably tidying up any illegalities. Unless he is planning to kill her after she signs it, it’s doubtful such a document would hold up when she (an FBI agent, after all) decides to tell the judge she was forced to sign it at gunpoint.

A stronger choice would have Kate suspect something untoward is going on with these CIA/Delta Force people at the Mexican border, and bring along her partner (Reggie Wayne, played by Daniel Kaluuya) to investigate. The trail then leads them to the awful truth about this brutal, extra-legal operation being conducted in the name of justice.

As a bonus, the end of the second act could find her succeeding in disrupting the Delta Force’s plans, and then, having fought the Delta Force guys throughout the movie, deciding to go through with the revenge plot anyway—now having become convinced that this is the only way to deal with the depth of the evil she has encountered.

Under such a strategy, the character arc and theme of the picture could be more forcefully and persuasively delivered, and the problem of a sidelined, passive main character solved.

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6 thoughts on “STORYTELLING STRATEGIES: Sicario’s Vanishing Main Character

  1. Marv_Boogie

    I love the film, but I found her character very irritating. The story could have been told without her which is IMH a major screenwriting faux pas

  2. mornyngstar

    I found this film really interesting because it broke free of some narrative boundaries that have become sacrosanct in movies.

    It can go two ways. Kate’s virtue and humanity, framed as a weakness throughout much of the movie, are her strengths – and the strength of human civilization. It’s not a coincidence that every “bad” character has a scene of “redemption” symbolized plainly by what they live for. Manuel Diaz had his kids playing in the pool behind him as he addressed the authorities messing with their bank accounts. El Jefe at the end enjoys a bucolic setting for his final dinner with his family. Indeed, what El Jefe was paying for was breaking the rule – of NOT killing the wife and kids. So much so that he expected his children to survive him at the end, which is why he says, “Not in front of my boys.” Even then he fully expected to rely on the unspoken rule that says children and wives are to be untouched. NOTE: except for El Jefe, Alejandro kills no family members – even saying as much to the crooked cop in the car.

    The crooked Mexican cop is constantly framed by his son (and wife) – indeed he’s his best self at the prodding and goading of his little soccer player. Kate is asked in the beginning about a husband… kids…. to which she answers in the negative both times. She has nothing to live for. She’s disposable.

    But her humanity… her desire to experience closeness (picking up the crooked Phoenix cop) as a counterpoint to having seen and been responsible for so much death in a short period of time. Her experiencing of a remarkably functional and endearing platonic relationship with her partner. Her backsliding into smoking. Perhaps she’s the hero for precisely these things. She’s human. She’s us. Thrust into a world of ANIMALS (as described by Alejandro). And perhaps the moral of the story was to examine how WE — the audience (and presumably the consumer driving the demand for these drugs) — are perfectly comfortable with the product but not with the commerce (a line of dialogue about “as long as there’s that 20% eager to take blow up the nose… etc.”).

    The other angle is this: Alejandro is the main character – and telling it through Kate’s eyes is by definition building a strong narrative counterpoint. He is everything she is not and vice versa.

  3. jeffguenther

    I think films with a passive main character often have an accompanying cinematic flaw, a lack of significant stakes for that character.

    Consider Elizabethtown. The MC, Drew, is a victim. In the opening, he’s being carted around, considering suicide, being fired, and sauteed in guilt. Still, some viewers may identify with him; he’s played by Orlando Bloom, fer gosh sakes. If that doesn’t do it, the Kirsten Dunst character, Claire, is nuts over him.

    But ask yourself, “What are the stakes?” The highest possible outcome is not-killing-himself. The stakes are not Claire’s affection; she’s already made it clear she’s gaga over him. The stakes are the lack of a negative for a character we don’t care a lot about–very soft ground on which to build a film, even with a nice cast. Maybe too nice, in the case of Elizabethtown.

  4. katsbca@gmail.com

    Or at least have Kate present in the climactic shootout to work the theme of moralism versus a lawless state (where the law doesn’t work). She would provide the resistance/point of view for legality versus Del Toro’s representation of a personal moralism.

  5. Freeden

    I think that the assessment of Kate in Sicario completely misses the point of her character. You call her passive, but that mistakens her role in the film as a character active in the operation to begin with. She’s not. Her entire point is that she is the morally high character. She is the only one who attempts to stick to protocol, even when everyone around her is doing whatever they can to complete their mission. The reason she continuously jeopardizes everything is because she is unwilling to cross a line that every other character seems to be willing to cross. I believe that you are coming from the angle of seeing the story through Del Toro’s character or Josh Brolin’s character because they are the action leads. They are the ones who drive the movie, who make things happen. But if you look through Kate’s POV, it’s a completely different story. It’s one of corruption. It’s one where these law enforcers are breaking the law to kill the bad guys. From her POV, they are immoral and unjust and she maintains her moral standing throughout the entire film. Unlike the audience, who never quite questions the actions of Brolin or Del Toro, Kate never does. To me, this is what makes it different. Our main character isn’t the action hero of the film, but rather the character usually relegated to being a supporting character. She’s the moral objection to the character’s actions, the questioning of their way of doing things. And as we ultimately come to find out, she’s inconsequential to anything that actually happens in the film to begin with. I would say that her so called passiveness in the film actually heightens the impact of what’s going on because it diminishes the heroic nature of the other character’s actions. Maybe they aren’t quite as heroic as we are led to believe they are.

  6. Mike

    spoiler!!!
    I think that the crucial question is only asked or dealt with at the end of the movie when del Toro’s character comes to Kate Macer and forces her at gunpoint to sign and vouch for that the whole operation went down ok and everything that happened was legally sound.
    This moment should habe been the end of the second act and then Kate should have dealt with the conflict to either accept the highly illegal execution of the drug lord in Mexico which compromises everything she stood for and believed in in her professional life, or to fight del Toro and the Delta Force guys and force them to comply with and to respect the law – no matter how terrible the crimes are that the bad guys have committed and will still commit.

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