In Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario (2015), Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, a F.B.I. agent recruited to join a task force in pursuit of a top Mexican cartel. After joining the team led by government official Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), Macer goes through a rigmarole of deception and shady circumstances in the name of justice. Macer is a strong female character, but not a “strong female character,” the now-clichéd stock character. She perseveres, but she and we are left to wonder at what cost.
Since the film’s premiere at Cannes and limited release last weekend, multiple critics raised issue with what they deemed Macer’s lack of agency, finding the team’s manipulation of her and her seeming passivity problematic. Taking advantage of Macer’s gender and earnestness, Graver and Alejandro place her in dangerous situations for the benefit of the mission without letting her on to what’s going on behind the scenes. She is left in the dark to their own questionable actions until she’s in too deep to leave, from murky information retrieval to a honeypot scheme. An ethical officer in a hard spot, Macer has little say and little place to turn to outside of her shaky stress-reducing cigarette breaks.
Between Sicario, Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Looper (2012), we know that Blunt can handle a gun as an actress. What separates Kate Macer from Blunt's characters in those other films is an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. Even while armed and loaded, Macer falls into sticky spots at the hands of her teammates and should-be confidantes. Macer has a gun and a can-do attitude, but those don’t make her impenetrable to the systemic dangers dictated by gender and status. As a woman, she is subjected to unsolicited commentary on her appearance and romantic life from co-workers, as well as given tasks not also assigned to her male colleagues. As a newbie, she is kept out of the loop of the team’s larger plans and left to pick up the pieces. While most women can’t relate to working on a drug sting operation, the great majority can relate to that general situation in a male-driven workplace.
It would be easy to categorize Kate Macer as yet another “bad-ass action movie hero” or “strong female character,” aka “tough female role” or “full metal bitch,” but that would be incorrect and a disservice to Blunt’s performance. The very same vulnerability that some may find troublesome is exactly what separates Macer from the cliché. Blunt hones that quality to such a pristine degree that it becomes the crux of her character, with dramatic tension rising from the conflict between ethically-bound perseverance and said inherent vulnerability. On the Sicario press tour, from Cannes to Colbert, Blunt herself has taken issue with the term “tough female role.” Blunt has explained that she saw Macer “strangely quite damaged and vulnerable and she is struggling with this role of being a female cop,” and not tough just because the character is a woman with a gun. As Stephen Colbert pointed out, "Nobody says to Bruce Willis, 'You looked very tough out there.'"
Interestingly enough, Sicario nearly didn’t get made as screenwriter Taylor Sheridan was pressured to turn the lead character into a man. If he had done so, the film would have received a larger budget, but we would have lost yet another crucial female role in the war on gender disparity on screen -- only 30% of speaking roles across the 100 top films of the past seven years were women. Instead, Sicario and Blunt’s performance stand as testaments to the strength of female characters beyond stock cliches and as leading roles. Neither a “strong female character” nor a “damsel-in-distress,” Kate Macer is a woman making her way through a man’s world, vulnerabilities and all, and in so doing, becomes a strong full-fledged female character.