Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Josh Brolin (Matt), Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro), Jon Bernthal (Ted), Jeffrey Donovan (Steve Forsing), Victor Garber (Jennings), Raoul Trujillo (Rafael), Maximiliano Hernández (Silvio), Lora Martinez-Cunningham (Jacinta), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie), Kim Larrichio (Silvio's Wife), Dylan Kenin (Charlie), Julio Cedillo (Fausto Alarcon).
On its surface level, Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is a brutal, bloody, violent and expertly crafted thriller – a cross border drug war film that offers a bleak view of what it is the American government is doing to combat the flow of illegal drugs into the country from Mexico, and their fight with the Mexican cartels. The film is brilliantly directed by Villeneuve – not to mention shot by Roger Deakins, one of the great d.p.’s of all time – and is intense from the opening scenes, right down to its memorably brutal action climax. As far as pure thrillers go, Sicario is one of the best you will see this year. Yet, there is another level to Sicario that I think deepens the film, and pushes it beyond the realm of the pure thriller. Like Villeneuve’s Prisoners from 2013, Sicario works brilliantly on the surface, but gets better when you dig beneath it.
When the film opens, FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is working in Arizona on human trafficking cases, and discovers a house – that they know, but cannot prove belongs to a Mexican Cartel leader – that has a few dozen bodies hiding behind the walls, and is also booby trapped with explosions. What she finds there sickens her – and she wants to get the people responsible for it. So, when offered a chance to join an inter-agency task force going after the cartel – she jumps at the chance, even though she knows next to nothing about the drug trade. The task force is being run by Matt (Josh Brolin), who seems casual and laid back, and who is also evasive about what exactly they are doing, and who precisely he works for. Their first task is to go to the “El Paso area” and bring in the brother of the man they think owns that house. Things are strange from the start – when Kate arrives at the plane to take her to El Paso, she meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who is even more evasive than Matt is about his motives. And it turns out that by the El Paso area, what was really meant was Juarez, Mexico – and the mission ends up in gunfire and a lot of dead bodies – that, of course, is pretty much swept under the rug. Right away, Kate realizes she has no idea what she has gotten herself into.
The film is about this violent world, for which there are no real rules, no real leadership, and people on sides of the drug war who are willing to do any and everything to win – even if no one has any clear idea of winning would actually look like. The movie exists in a world where the threat of violence is ever present, and about to burst at any moment. Villeneuve handles these moments brilliantly – nowhere more so than that border crossing mentioned above, when the agents are stuck in a traffic jam, and have to look around and everyone they see is a potential threat. When the violence finally occurs, it’s a visceral relief, because Villeneuve has done such an expert job at building that tension. There is a similar scene near the end – involving a raid and a tunnel, and night vision googles, that is handled expertly – without relying heavily on the chaotic, rapid fire editing many modern action movies use to artificially make things seem exciting. But Villeneuve handles even smaller moments well – a terrifying confrontation with some Kate thinks she can trust in her apartment, and the expert final scene where we think there is no way a character will do what we think he will –right up until the moment he does it. It is masterfully handled.
All of that would make Sicario well worth seeing – and one of the best thrillers of the year. But there is another level to Sicario as well – one that some critics have complained about, but that I think actually deepens the film. By the nature of her role, Blunt’s Kate is confused for much of the movie – she is the audience surrogate in the movie, and we are meant to be as confused as she is throughout – only really realizing the secrets at the end. After setting Blunt’s Kate up as the central character in the film – the movie almost entirely leaves her out of the climax – which some critics do not like, but I think makes complete and total sense. The other characters in the movie view Kate as a necessity – but not central, figure in what they need to do. Without giving too much away, they cannot do what they do without her – but they don’t really care about her either. They use her when they need her, but won’t let her get in the way. Blunt’s performance in the film makes this central conflict clear as well. She has been a great actress for a number of years now, but this is probably her best work. It isn’t easy to make a character like this so compelling, and human, but she does. You could compare her to Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty – the difference being that while both women are very competent in a world dominated by men, Chastain actually gets a chance to prove that, and succeeds. Blunt’s Kate isn’t really given that chance – and as a result she feels used by the end. As great as Blunt is in the film, Del Toro is even better – calm, cool, collected, his icy exterior masks something throughout the movie that he only lets out at the end. While you could complain that it’s too bad an actor of Del Toro’s caliber is continually stuck in movies about drug cartels (because of his race) – you cannot deny just how great he has been in films like Soderberg’s Traffic (for which he won an Oscar), Stone’s Savages (playing an unhinged psychopath), and now in Sicario (this doesn’t mention his performance as Pablo Escobar – mainly because I still have not caught up with that film yet – and at this, I may not). At the very least, Del Toro is playing different roles, in different films – even if they tap into the same basic story.
Sicario is a brilliantly executed thriller. Villeneuve is now one of the go-to guys in Hollywood for films like this – and he has parlayed that into bigger movies (he will direct the Blade Runner sequel coming up). I hope he doesn’t completely abandon his strange Canadian roots – in films like Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Incendies and Enemy, he shows a different side of himself, that is equally (if not more) interesting than the Hollywood version. But if it means more films like Sicario – I’m all for it.