Jeez, I don’t think my palms have stopped sweating yet. This is a film that slowly ratchets up the tension very slowly, always bubbling under the surface, never fully exploding, until the multiple simmering paths of the film converge in the final act with this haunting release of power and uncertainty that makes things clearer, but not for the better for all those involved. There hasn’t been a film I’ve been looking forward to more in recent months than Sicario, and I’m glad to say it lives up to the hype. Denis Villeneuve delivers another knockout that cements is status as one of the go-to modern auteur filmmakers working today.
The film follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) a hot-shot FBI tactical team member who is recruited by a special task force led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to take down a Mexican cartel operating within Mexico and past and into the American border. Along with the group is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious and calculated piece of the puzzle whose motivations provide paramount for the story as it unfolds. Macer finds herself immersed deeper and deeper with this task force who use methods she’s less than familiar with, and only questions deeper and deeper the true reason why she was the one chosen.
I’m obviously going to avoid spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that, but man, Blunt does an excellent job portraying this unraveling character who still maintains her composure, but is deeply rocked by all the side effects that start to come down on her by joining this group who she’s never entirely sure of. Questions loom, and slowly get answered, but are the kind where you were probably better off not knowing the answer if you’re one of the characters in the film. Macer wades through this as best as she can, trying to seek revenge on the cartel who killed officers under her command at the start of the film, but everything Macer finds out is a whole lot larger than a couple dead FBI agents to avenge.
Del Toro’s Alejandro is the lynch pin of the film, who begins as a quiet tertiary character, only until he slowly makes his way to the forefront of the film and blasts the entire thing wide open, and his deepest secrets are revealed. Del Toro is perfect as this mysterious guy who looks like he could easily swing from being a by-the-books family man to a stone-cold killer, or what have you. Brolin is also pretty perfect as the smug asshole leader who is just a little too entrenched in his way of life to see things any differently nowadays, a stark contrast to the green Macer.
The word I keep coming back to when thinking of this film is quite simple, “haunting,” mainly due to the exceptional work of Roger Deakins’ cinematography and of course the unmatched direction of Villeneuve. I would say this would be a slam dunk for Deakins to FINALLY get his Oscar, but then someone reminded me that The Revenant is still coming out to steal that, but still this is just yet another masterful piece of work from the best in the business. There’s a few shots in here that is literally just of dust floating and it’s some of the most well-shot scenes and I’ve seen in recent memory. Villeneuve and Deakins also wonderfully film the Mexican and Arizona deserts as both establishing shots, but also as to illustrate the eerie and emptiness of these areas.
It’s such a treat to have a film work on every one of its levels and add up to an extraordinary piece of work. The story is tense and thrilling, albeit lagging a bit in direction in the middle parts. The characters are interesting, defined, and all with several levels. And finally as I mentioned the film is shot so wonderfully and filled with expression in the bleakest of manners. I expect Oscar love for this, from Blunt, Del Toro and Deakins at the least, and hope it doesn’t get overshadowed like Villeneuve’s films have in the past.
Of course, yeah, Sicario is a crime thriller, but given the talent behind it it succeeds at being much more than that. In and of itself it is an excellent ride filled with tension, but gives its subject matter a lot of credence and manages to tell a small story in the grand scheme of things that is relevant to the war on drugs and Mexican cartels in the larger sense. In that forever and seemingly equally going forward the drug war in Mexico and abroad, spearheaded by these numerous cartels are all just multiple parts of the same seven headed dragon. No matter how much a dent you think you put into something, there’s always another party just waiting to fill that space and leave you wondering if all that bloodshed was worth anything. It’s a vicious circle and one that Sicario does a masterful job outlining and revealing its true and real ugliness.