You don’t go to a Denis Villeneuve film to feel at ease. You go to watch superbly put together portraits of twisted and disturbing subject material. Sicario, being like a two-hour living nightmare in the best way, is one of the most technically well-made films I’ve seen in a long time, also sporting exceptional performances from its three leads. It is an unflinching look at the corrupt war between out of control drug cartels and the federal agencies taking drastic action to stop them, all playing out on and around the border between Mexico and the United States.
It all begins when FBI SWAT agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a kidnapping raid in Arizona, only to find corpses. So when the U.S. sees an opportunity to draw out the leader of the most notorious Mexican cartel (who also ordered the kidnapping), DOD adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) convinces Kate to volunteer to seek out the people responsible for the crime in Arizona. But with the apparent parameters of the mission changing at every turn, Kate is swiftly wrenched out of her comfort zone and the line between opposing sides is deconstructed. And who is Matt’s mysterious partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro)?
The movie asks a lot of its three central actors, as a significant amount of screen time is devoted to moments where their faces have to tell the story. Blunt grounds the film so well because in her feature-length descent into an illogical hell with lies of omission at every turn, she communicates such subtlety with only expressions. There’s the downward spiral of confusion that runs throughout, and also moments of touching humanity. There’s a scene involving a group of illegal immigrants wherein Blunt conveys a single moment of such guarded but sincere sympathy, before quickly moving on to the business of the scene. Her character’s decency is essential as a contrast to the moral bankruptcy all around her.
Not to be outdone, del Toro also gives a magnetic and minimalistic performance that could very get some awards buzz. And Brolin skillfully radiates an aura of simultaneous charisma and threat, using a permanent shit-eating grin as others use body armor. Also notable are Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s similarly sane partner and Victor Garber as her beleaguered boss. All the major characters are involved in a story that when laid out on paper doesn’t stand out much; many fairly expected beats are hit, but what matters in Sicario is the extent to which they’re internalized by Kate and by extension the audience.
In other words, it’s entirely excusable that the plot and story is nothing too special, because the visual and aural storytelling do the heavy lifting brilliantly and make every turn seep under the viewer’s skin. Director Villeneuve and editor Joe Walker create a landscape of dread punctuated by hard-hitting violence. Villeneuve’s previous films Prisoners and Enemy were largely atmospheric affairs, but Sicario introduces uncompromised action beats. The protracted build-up to violence, and its bloody release, complement each other here. I could have sworn the volume was turned up more than usual at my screening, making each gunshot register that much more. And aided by the doom-laden droning of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, and the clarity of Roger Deakins’ cinematography, Sicario adds up to a formidable technical achievement.
There’s one thing about Kate’s ultimate place in the story that is a little off-putting, but it’s part of the movie’s point in the end. Kate, despite being the clear lead character, is not the protagonist of the story, and in the third act starts to get a little lost in her own film. It’s appropriate that Kate is our window into these extraordinary events, and that she does end up helpless later in the film to change the course of events set in motion by higher-ups far away from the field. It makes sense when you see it, it just takes time away from Emily Blunt to continue owning the screen.
Sicario is a technical triumph, generating paranoia and discomfort with precision, courtesy of very talented filmmakers. And the cast is a match for the intensity of the material, with Blunt and del Toro as the clear standouts. I do prefer Sicario over director Villeneuve’s previous Prisoners and Enemy, but taking all three together, it’s clear that he’s hitting these challenging thrillers out of the park. He’s got two science fiction films up next in the pipeline; should be fascinating. As for Sicario, it’s a beautifully constructed film depicting horrific material. A weak 9/10.