TIFF 2015: Sicario
There’s no better evidence of Denis Villeneuve‘s handle of craft than in Sicario. Directing a tightly paced screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, Villeneuve follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent recruited to join a task force headed by government worker Matt (Josh Brolin) and his intense sidekick Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). From the start, Kate realizes she’s out of her depth; Matt and Alejandro lie (a trip to El Paso winds up in Juarez), and they prefer to keep her in the dark about what they’re really doing when it comes to luring a top cartel member out of hiding. And as the mission gets more dangerous (and more vague), Kate realizes she’s thrown herself right into the vicious maw of the War on Drugs.
There are points early on where Sicario feels like watching a masterclass on how to create a truly nerve-wracking thriller. Relying once again on legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (who lensed Villeneuve’s first mainstream effort Prisoners), Villeneuve keeps things in Kate’s perspective, taking advantage of the southern border’s vast landscapes to clash with the chaotic unknowns Kate finds herself thrust into repeatedly. Blunt is terrific as her character fights between maintaining some sort of control of her situation and pure, pants-shitting terror at what she’s a part of, and del Toro can be downright bone-chilling when he shows his ruthless side in the film’s latter half.
The choice to include a brief subplot involving a Mexican police officer, an attempt by Sheridan to offer a look at the human cost of the drug trade, is less of a relief from the unrelenting tension and more of a distraction than anything. It’s an attempt to broaden the film’s scope, but it fails because there’s no need; by observing the headache-inducing bureaucracy, the little value placed on lives, and the “means justifying the ends” philosophy taken to the utmost extreme, Sicario does plenty in showing off the disastrous state of the drug trade today.