Film Review – Sicario
Somewhere between a pulsating, rhythmic soundtrack and Roger Deakins‘ awe-inducing cinematography, there’s an excitement that exists in the idea of something otherly evil that lurks just outside the frame of our view. Since Vietnam, the drug trade has given American audiences a villain of foreign origins; a vast, and mostly faceless organization that will kill anything and everything to achieve its goals of monetary gain. It’s capitalism at its purest. And there’s something about it all that provides the fodder for storytelling that makes us want to lap it up. Director Denis Villeneuve‘s latest film Sicario draws directly off this idea of the thrill of an unknown villain and the voyeurism that unknown creates.
Focusing on the modern day drug war’s current mutation of Mexican cartels along the U.S., Mexico border, Sicario seeks to expose the nastier, underlying truth of the battle at play. FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is placed at the frontlines of the war when during a kidnapping recovery operation in Phoenix, Arizona, a house is discovered full of dead bodies and a bomb, all linking back to a Mexican cartel operating out of Juarez, Mexico. Kate is offered an opportunity to help track down the people responsible and bring them to justice by joining a task force lead by the mysterious government agent Matt (Josh Brolin). With both trepidation and determination, Kate accepts and almost immediately is sent to Juarez to accompany a mission to safeguard the transportation of a captured cartel official.
Villeneuve and writer/actor Taylor Sheridan approach the material like a procedural, detailing the moments of action that provide a backdrop against the characters’ unfolding dramas. Like Villeneuve’s previous movie Prisoners, there’s an underlying message to be gleamed from the tension and action. Unlike Prisoners, Sicario doesn’t overstate itself or dwell too long on its takeaway themes and instead focuses on the work in action. This is where Villeneuve excels as a director. Sequences play out precision tight, providing information, style and a specific sense of perspective.
With Kate in the forefront, we have a leading character that possesses a certain level of naiveté in the face of the ideals of justice. Believing in the established parameters of law and order, Kate plays everything by-the-book and strictly adheres to due process. Her views are quickly and forcibly tested when she’s placed in the center of a shakeup operation designed to lure a cartel leader from his hiding. Accompanying Kate and Matt on their quest is the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who hails from Medellin and the Columbian cartels that preceded the Mexican cartel takeovers. Alejandro seems to be guiding their operations while at the same time serving an unknown personal goal.
As operations proceed Kate begins to take more of a spectator view on the unfolding events. Clearly drawing a parallel to American audiences, Kate always wants to know the full truth and see everything there is to see. Like audiences though the truth of the war is just beyond our view. Roger Deakins shoots most of the films action as either in-your-face, or just out of reach, which gives the deep focus of so many shots an even more foreboding atmosphere; we can see far but we still can’t really see what we’re looking for.
The movie’s perspective is mostly attuned to the American side of the war, through the eyes of Kate, but occasionally cuts to the Mexican side, showing a small slice of life that eventually becomes the face of the casualty of the people that have to live day-in and day-out surrounded by the violent consequences. Despite these slight and telling moments, the movie mostly keeps the members of the cartels out of sight. When we do see them, it’s brief in the comparison to the entirety of the movie and they are relegated like any systematic organization to the roles of soldiers and rulers. The soldiers, frightful in appearance, covered in tattoos and imbuing pure violence are almost animalistic in their impulsive nature. Meanwhile the rulers sit in Haciendas, having elaborate meals with their families and ordering unspeakable things to be done to others, in the name of business.
Utilizing this perspective of the cartels along with the three lead actors, Villeneuve and crew have crafted a superbly taut action, thriller. Brolin’s performance as Matt is both nihilistically fun and spot on its symbolic representation of by-any-means-necessary. The out-of-her-depth and yet ever-curious aspect Blunt brings to Kate is refreshing in its infuriating result. Stoic, pained and dangerous, Del Toro is at once extremely likeable and totally unnerving. His performance here is understated compared to previous roles, which makes him all the more of a presence to watch.
The visceral impact of the movie comes from the combination of sound, imagery, and performances but draws on an empathetic perspective of being tantalized by the mysterious danger of something unknown. The approach practically mythologizes the Mexican cartels for the sake of this narrative. It’s a choice that fortunately works to the movie’s advantage, heightening the audiences’ desire to see and know more. In less even hands this could’ve been an overwrought, pretentious mess. Instead, the craft in the filmmaking here results in one of the most solid movie experiences of the year; a flat out thrill to watch and think about.