French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve first gained attention for his Oscar nominated 2010 drama Incendies, and has since established himself further with his two 2013 films Prisoners and Enemy. The former was a very well made A-list studio mystery, while the latter is a mind-bending indie drama. His winning streak continues with Sicario, a thriller set amongst the ‘war of drugs’ that’s arguably his strongest yet and cements his reputation as one of the best filmmakers to have emerged in recent years.
The film begins with a sequence depicting an FBI SWAT team raiding a house in Arizona. They’re looking for hostages, but find something much more gruesome. It’s an incredible set-piece, with a tone that’s somewhere between an action movie and a horror movie. That description could be applied to many of Sicario’s central sequences in fact, Villeneuve crafts several key scenes of edge-of-the-seat tension that are very different from typical movie shoot outs.
One member of the team at the start is agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). Her competence in the field gains the attention of CIA Special Activities Division undercover officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who recruits her to join an elite team whose ultimate target is a Mexican cartel boss. Macer acts in many ways as an audience surrogate, taking us into the murky world of drug enforcement. She’s no blank slate however, a morally idealistic, hard-working agent played with convincing determination by Blunt, Macer soon finds herself at odds with the tactics employed by the men who’ve employed here.
Brolin’s laid-back officer, wonderfully introduced via a sight gag (he’s wearing flip-flops in a room full of suits) seems happy to work with Macer but eludes giving much, if any detail as to what she’s getting herself into. His approach is reflected by Villeneuve, never putting the audience a step ahead of her. We and Macer first get a taste of the dangers ahead during her first visit to Juarez, where gunshots are heard at regular intervals and mutilated bodies are hung from lampposts.
It’s a terrifyingly tense sequence that culminates in one of the absolute scenes of the year, as the team crosses the boarder back into the US, they suspect that some cartel gunmen may be about to attack them. A brilliantly staged confrontation occurs next, which contrasts greatly with more standard Hollywood shoot-out scenes. There’s nothing “cool” about it, it’s incredibly frightening.
This scene shows us a new side of the film’s other central character, the elusive Alejandro (Benicio del Toro). Alejandro first appears as Brolin’s mostly silent partner, but as we gradually learn more about him and his mysterious past, the more fascinating both he, and the movie become. His arc takes a further turn in the film’s astounding third act, which is a bit too spoilery to get into, and del Toro (who had quite a different role in the similarly themed Traffic) plays him to perfection.
Sicario is an incredibly well-executed movie, further improved by the astounding cinematography from the great Roger Deakins, who creates an atmosphere of harsh, bright daylight contrasted with the night raid scenes which often switch between night-vision, helicopter surveillance footage and character’s perspectives. There’s a scene in a tunnel that recalls The Silence of the Lambs, something Blunt’s character does too in fact, but Sicario lives up to that comparison. Jóhann Jóhannsson provides an ominous score that’s vastly different from his name-making work on The Theory of Everything last year, and enhances what’s on screen brilliantly without drawing attention to itself.
Sicario knows not to offer any easy solutions to the tough world it examines, and segues into a final act that, given my earlier talk of combining the action and horror genres, is more comparable to a war movie. It’s a consistently unpredictable thriller that feels to take a thoughtful look at the realities of the current ‘war of drugs’ while still being an astonishing piece of cinema.