During a raid on a Phoenix house that may have possible links to the drug cartel, the FBI stumbles upon an array of dead bodies. The bodies are quickly associated with drug lord Manuel Diaz (Bernardo P. Saracino). Following the discovery, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited to a task force led by the Department of Defense that is enlisted with stopping Diaz.
On a plane to Juarez, where they are to intercept Guillermo (Edgar Arreola), Diaz’s brother, Kate meets the team’s number two Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro). He is terse and stoic, but, as Kate watches him sleep, we see something terrifying within. His hand shakes, his face awash with pain. Then, he shocks awake.
The next time we see Alejandro alone on screen, the score rumbles with ominous bass notes. This violent drone continues as we see a long crane shot track across open desert, following the convoy of police vehicles as they cross the border into Mexico. One of the next shots we see is of mutilated bodies, roped up on an underpass as a symbol of the cartel’s power.
This characterizes the tone of Sicario well. It is grit for the sake of grit; an unfettered glimpse at drug warfare. Along with this gritty tone comes well-placed tension. In the next scene, the convoy is held by traffic at the border, their package already secured. As they sit, they scan the cars for intimidating figures. The scene drags itself out, slowly unraveling. It is a pot of boiling water waiting to spill over.
Most scenes unravel in this manner. Intensity marks every cut and camera movement.
The acting from the leads on top of this taut backdrop is top notch. Josh Brolin plays his Department of Defense character with cool sarcasm despite the sinister way that he refuses to play by the book. Blunt foils this well, her frustration building underneath his skin as she learns about the way her new job works.
And Del Toro is absolutely mesmerizing as the quiet, calm man who has simply seen too much of this war. It isn’t that you can see a world of pain in his eyes, but that you can see the bitter resignation that comes from coping with such pain.
Sicario doesn’t pull any punches, and even plays cinematic conventions against the moviegoer’s expectations. When the story appears to be drifting toward the conventional, we get something completely different. It is a marvelous narrative technique that truly catches you off guard, even though we’ve come to expect such rule-breaking measures from director Denis Villenueve in the past.
The movie isn’t without its faults, though. When you strip away the grand scope of the narrative, our protagonist is an archetypal character. Kate is an idealistic FBI agent looking to make a difference, only to find out that it might not be so squeaky clean on her end of the law. This conventional take is hidden well, as she is often nearby the most three dimensional character in the film, Alejandro. It is also easily overlooked by the fascinating parallel thread that looks inside the “criminal” side of the askew cops-and-robbers dynamic.
For all of its viscera. All of its deliberate cinematography and pulse-pounding scene arcs. All of its high caliber acting performances. With all of this in play, Sicario lacks that little bit of oomph that would knock it into the upper echelon. Still, it packs a wallop whose blow is worth taking.
Denis Villeneuve might be one of the most underrated directors working today. His films have been truly phenomenal, from the cerebral Prisoners to the, well, really cerebral Enemy. He just makes good films, and this one is no exception.
Sicario is currently available to rent/buy on Amazon Video here.
As always, thanks for reading!
Have you seen Sicario? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)