Sicario is a solid piece of crime genre fiction elevated into a haunting and powerful cinematic experience by impeccable filmmakers and a talented cast.
Sicario opens with a nightmarish look at the battle between U.S. law enforcement and the Mexican drug cartels along the Arizona border. While tracking leads in a kidnapping case, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her team make the horrific discovery of a mundane Arizona home that has been serving as a cartel graveyard. The trauma of that event stokes agent Macer’s burning need for justice, making it easy for a gleeful and mysterious ‘problem solver’ named Matt (Josh Brolin) to recruit her onto his clandestine anti-cartel task force.
Before Kate even knows what’s what, she finds herself teamed with an even more mysterious war dog named Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) and hustled onto a plane bound for the bowels of Juarez, Mexico, to throwdown with some dangerous cartel boogeymen. As soon as the plane touches down in Juarez, Kate watches as the rules of law, order and justice she held so dear melt away before her eyes. Men like Matt and Alejandro know how dirty and bloody a surgeon’s hands must get in order cut away the cartel cancer; but Kate is not at all ready to peer into such a deep abyss, leaving the naive young agent on the verge of totally unraveling, just as the guns start blazing.
The new film from director Dennis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy), Sicario captures the tension and horror of the modern war on drugs like few films before it have. It’s a nightmare that will be hard for some to experience, but like any significant bad dream (or good piece of art), its effect will linger in mind long after it’s over.
On a directorial front, Sicario is a great piece of cinema meticulously crafted by Villeneuve, and beautifully shot by twelve-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall). There are more than a few hints of Kubrickian style in the way the visuals and musical score (by Prisoners composer Jóhann Jóhannsson) are put together. This is apparent in the slowly winding panning overhead shots of topographical landscapes (the barren lands or clustered cities of Mexico), or the slow pans across tight corridors which threaten menace just outside the frame, all of which recall the atmospheric horror of Kubrick’s The Shining – a film that Sicario seems to use as its inspiration, to great benefit.
But more than simple homage, Villeneuve polishes the entire film with own distinct stylistic flares, capturing imagery that is beautifully iconographic and telling (ringing bells on themes that go far beyond the story), via indelible images or creative sequences that make the film a feast for the eyes of cinephiles, as well as casual viewers. Take away Jóhannsson’s ominously booming score (think Shining crossed with those Inception horns), and the film is also eerily quiet and pensive in its meditation on what kinds of darkness must be plumbed in order to find and slay monsters. That silent tone only adds to the dread, feeling more like the quiet before a storm (or after a massacre), rather than a tranquil stillness.
Like The Shining, actor Taylor Sheridan’s (Sons of Anarchy) script for Sicario takes a normal and structured institution (the machine of law enforcement, rather than a family unit) and plunges it into a slow descent into the dark, wherein the assumed or valued aspects of the institution (order, fairness, decency) are stripped away to reveal a much uglier beast hiding just beneath the surface (the true face of the war on drugs). Sheridan does a great job of also stripping away moral judgements about the topic, or cliched labels of “good guys” or “bad guys.” This film focuses on the demon in the room – that ever-present Nietzschean conundrum about the war on drugs (both in this fictional version and the real world), and that war’s toll on the human beings caught up in it.
Sicario opts to raises awareness about the very real war being fought along the US southern borderlands, and forces the frightening consideration of all the casualties (literal and figurative) left in its wake. One tangential subplot (about a Juarez family) seems vague and extraneous at first – and would certainly have been in another film – but by the end of the movie, Sheridan brings that tangent back around to the main plot line to create a final scene that has nothing to do with our main characters, but speaks volumes about what the themes of their journey and conflicts mean to a real world situation. That’s bold, precise and ultimately insightful and resonant storytelling, and Sheridan and Villeneuve seem to be perfectly synched in the telling of it.
None of the larger ideas at work in the film (many of them implied rather than stated outright) would have been possible without impeccable performances from actors required to say more with looks, gestures and attitude, rather than words or emoting. Sicario goes for a “realistic” take on the world it’s exploring, in the sense that the artifice and high melodrama seen in so many action/thriller movies is stripped away entirely, leaving a methodical, procedural approach that the characters (and filmmakers) follow.
Carrying out that muted emotion while still conveying a much deeper emotional story is tough, but Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro dovetail one another wonderfully, illustrating an entire emotional subtext in scant (but well measured) exchanges of dialogue. Blunt is meticulous and subtle in selling a traumatic slow breakdown of idealism, and though Del Toro is handed some monologuing platitudes that could have bombed, he pulls those grandiose bits down with a deep subtlety and power to Alejandro that makes him a captivating figure to watch – surely worthy of the film’s title. Meanwhile, Josh Brolin sits in the middle chewing scenery and adding needed levity that doubles as funny (or scary) commentary, in the role of “Matt,” the embodiment of a faceless and unaccountable covert intelligence machine that answers to no real authority and observes no real set of rules.
In the end, Sicario is a solid piece of crime genre fiction elevated into a haunting and powerful cinematic experience by impeccable filmmakers and a talented cast. Definitely one of the best films in the drug war/crime sub-genre – and for me, one of the best films of the year. For those interested, it’s a must-see in theaters, as Villeneuve’s directorial vision deserves a big screen canvas. Let the lights go down, and the nightmare take you.
Sicario is now playing in limited release. It expands to wide release on October 2nd. It is 121 minutes long, and is Rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.
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