A volcanic drug-war thriller that impresses on every level.
It’d be hard for anyone to poke holes in Sicario, a dark, pulpy thriller crafted exceptionally well by director Denis Villeneuve and his team. The story starts as a slow-burn mystery, following Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a wary FBI agent slung head-first into a shady government task force mission meant to cleanse the U.S./Mexico border of drugs, corruption, and violence. As the streets fill with blood we slowly uncover, with Kate, more and more of the truth behind her new team’s blatantly unethical methods of crime-fighting, the film develops into a tense, action-packed scramble that will leave you gasping for breath.
Sicario is so confidently presented that many of its finer details may go under-appreciated. One subtlety that comes to mind is the sense of traversal Villeneuve creates to immerse us in the story’s nightmarish setting. Early in the film, we see Kate traveling with her team in a caravan of armed vehicles, rolling through the streets of Juarez en route to apprehending a suspect that may lead them to the head of the cartel. We see bodies hanging under an overpass like aging meat, their bodies mutilated, blood dried. Aerial shots of Mexico fill the screen with orange, dusty earth, emphasizing the fact that the Americans are invaders in a sprawling, buzzing hornet’s nest. Cinematographer Roger Deakins is invaluable, shooting Mexico as a forbidden place polluted by death and despair.
The care Villeneuve puts into making these sequences, in which we take time to watch the team travel from point A to point B, is the core of what makes Sicario so engrossing. The tension builds with each gruesome thing we see, each morally indefensible act Kate is forced to participate in. The storytelling evokes a sinking feeling of “I’m not supposed to be here” that makes every little moment terrifying in its own, twisted way. It’s one of those great movies that forces you to go at its pace rather than pandering to yours. It can be unbearably intense at times, which in turn makes it an unforgettable, white-knuckle experience.
Blunt is supported by two of the industry’s best, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro. Brolin plays a Department of Defense consultant named Matt who acts as the veritable keeper of secrets on the task force’s. He’s a laid-back, Dude-like agent who only gets serious when he’s on the front lines or when Kate is badgering him for the truth. The enigmatic shadow hanging over the movie is Del Toro’s Alejandro, a skilled killer and torturer whose presence on the team worries Kate maybe more than anything. Why is he here, and who does he actually work for?
This is one of the best performances of Del Toro’s career. As Alejandro, he intimidates his prey not just by hurting them (though he does loads of that), but by invading their space. In the cramped back seat of a car, he extracts information from a corrupt cop not by punching him, but by driving his finger into his hostage’s ear canal. When the hostage refuses to talk, he leans his body weight on him, driving his shoulder up under his chin as if to say in a twisted gesture of dominance. When we learn the truth behind Alejandro’s motivations, the character and performance become even richer.
The second half of the film would be standard action fare if stood on its own, but when stood on the foundation of paranoia and confusion built in the first half, it’s volcanic, heart-stopping entertainment. The story’s revelations don’t come easy or quickly, but when they do, they’re rattling and resonant and will stick with you for days.
Matthew Heineman’s documentary Cartel Land was a shock to the system, taking us deep into the belly of the border drug war, and Sicario serves as a perfect narrative companion, exploring the seedy underworld through a more poetic, explicitly violent lens. Does the Sicario demonize Mexico? No. It considers the psychology of the people who drive the conflict that ravages those terrorized towns on the border and questions the nature of U.S. involvement. Villeneuve, his cast, and crew have made an undeniable, powerful film that works on so many levels it’s scary.