Drew: Making an action/thriller movie that’s heavily politicized is a very tricky endeavor. Lean too heavily on the politics and you risk alienating an audience that disagrees with your stance (see Green Zone or The Kingdom). Use the politics as nothing more than window dressing and you come off as glib (see World Trade Center). Sicario is a great example of how to make these kinds of movies: focus on a driving story that keeps the commentary ever-present but never insultingly obvious.
There’s plenty to dissect in the story of FBI tactical agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a righteous officer of the law who gets drafted into a shady op by Department of Defense consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). The goal is to take down one of a Mexican cartel’s biggest bosses, but with the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) along for the ride, nothing is quite what it seems.
Travis: Sicario is an enigmatic and tough film — a short synopsis makes it sound like any number of drug war thrillers. But this is a Denis Villeneuve film, and if you’ve seen his other work, you know he’s going to deliver something unique. Sicario plays like Zero Dark Thirty meets Silence of the Lambs, with a heavy pinch of Only God Forgives. It’s a bleak, brutal movie, and it refuses to give the audience any more than is necessary. Every character, on some level, feels unknowable. They never let us in except to feel the nauseating, nightmarish anxiety of being taken god-knows-where by people you don’t know to do something you know nothing about.
Taylor Sheridan’s script is full of tension and expertly paced, opening with a raid on a supposed hostage situation that has gone very, very bad. The movie is fantastic when it comes to keeping you along for the ride while also keeping you in the dark. On top of that is a sobering look at how the War on Drugs has become exactly that: a war. In fact, Sicario often feels more like a war movie, dealing with the horrors of the operation and the casual inhumanity that such endeavors make necessary. There’s an ominous scene where Alejandro is going to interrogate a cartel member, but we never see the actual torture. All we see is him bring a huge jug of water into the room, and then it cuts to a drain on the floor. It’s this exploration of the commonality of cruelty that elevates Sicario from just another crime drama.
That opening suburban raid is one of the year’s best opening sequences, without a doubt. It’s some scary shit. The film’s disturbingly quiet action sequences are all standouts, and for me, the night vision raid takes the cake. One thing that really separates this film from gun-heavy thrillers is that this is not a shoot-out movie. There are no scenes where characters are firing endless streams of bullets or ducking behind car doors and saying things like “I’m out!” or “cover me!”. The gun violence in this film is quick, brutal, and frequently off-screen. This isn’t a gun-porn movie — there’s no celebration or romance to it here.
Director Denis Villeneuve proves with Sicario that he’s stepped into the big leagues. The film is shot and edited magnificently, taking full advantage of the desert vistas of Mexico. A few of my favorite shots included helicopter scans of a sprawling suburban neighborhood that steeply shifts into the barren wasteland of the US/Mexico border, and a shot at dusk where soldiers walk into the shadowed horizon. If you have any doubts that Villeneuve’s eye isn’t right for Blade Runner 2, Sicario will quell those anxieties. Plus, Villeneuve is dynamite when it comes to melding action and suspense. The opening hostage scene is riveting, a one-man raid on a drug lord’s mansion is pulse-pounding, and a suspect transport early in the film is an absolute standout. Though it may be smaller in scale and length, I’d put it next to the street shootout in Heat. Yup.
Credit’s gonna be given where it’s due, and credit Roger Deakins with shooting one of the best-looking films of the year. The vistas are stunning and the way Deakins uses available light in night sequences is beyond cool. I also have to commend his use of real night vision and thermal vision in the tunnel sequence. The authenticity of that feels incredible. It transforms every corner, every flight of stairs into a potential hiding place for ghouls. When Macer’s team enters that tunnel, I literally caught myself biting my nails. But the real visual standouts of this movie are the close-ups on actors’ faces. They’re lit so handsomely, with such contrast and color that they become more beautiful than any desert vista.
However, I feel that the film is somewhat dry at times due to its main character feeling a little slight. While Blunt’s performance as Kate is hard-edged and believable, her character on paper is a bit of an audience proxy (until her final scene). She’s just along for the ride and asking, “What’s going on?” for most of the running time. In the hands of a lesser actress, this role could have been wafer thin, but Blunt sells it well.
I really appreciate how much Blunt accomplishes, considering how little she’s given. We know she’s divorced, has no kids, lives in a bland apartment, and smokes when she’s stressed. We don’t know what she likes to eat, what kind of music she likes, or if she’s religious or not. Those are things we usually expect to learn about a character, usually through non-verbal means. But we don’t really get to see Macer in her normal habitat here; she’s essentially in captivity for most of the movie. But Blunt helps us feel that she’s human, that she has some kind of life outside the borders of the frame. But in the frame, not much of that matters. Being the protagonist of a Hollywood film, she is unfortunately saddled with the film’s more tropey stuff — like that scene where a character gets curious about something really gross and researches it, only to find the pictures so awful/scary that they have to slam the book/laptop closed. You’ve all watched that scene a lot. Moments like that happen a few times in Sicario, but they’re never bad enough to break the film’s spell.
The real highlight of the film is Benicio del Toro. We all knew he could be intimidating and mysterious, but this is the gold standard for him. I kind of wish Alejandro’s backstory was revealed more visually instead of just tossed into some of Josh Brolin’s dialogue, but it definitely makes his character darkly sad. Alejandro’s climactic scene is both chilling and awesome in equal measure, and is the kind of moral awfulness I like to see out of these kinds of stories. And through it all, Sicario is about the awfulness of the drug war, the evil that must be embraced in order to fight it, and its toll on the people of Mexico. This kind of carnage is something that the country has become used to. It’s a part of their lives. The final sequence of the film drives that point home hard (maybe a little too hard), and it’s definitely not going to make you feel good when you leave. But, you will have enjoyed a taut story with enthralling action sequences. And if you learned something on the way out, that’s a plus too.
If you’re interested in Alejandro’s backstory, there’s been talk of him getting a spinoff. I’m not sure that’ll happen because the character is exceedingly difficult connect with. He’s so inhuman. He’s a monster, a boogeyman, killing his way through a world of lesser monsters and boogeymen. This is the world of Sicario, a heartbreaking brutalist thriller. It’s a skeletal film made exceptionally beautiful by the hands and eyes of Villeneuve and Deakins. And I believe it has the potential to be remembered as one of the best FBI thrillers since The Silence of the Lambs.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Out of a Possible 5 Stars