Drug wars, outlaws, renegades and themes of the American Old West come together in the latest film from Denis Villeneuve – “Sicario”. Steeped in violent and unsettling, and often unquestioning, present day times of cartels and drug running into the United States across the border, Villeneuve does what he does best; he keeps us on edge, panicked, yet unable to turn away from indelible images that sear into the eyeballs and the conscience.
Told primarily through the eyes of FBI SWAT tactical hostage specialist Kate Macer, we first meet Macer and her partner Reggie as they raid a house presumably belonging to a high ranking cartel leader. What they find is a house with dead bloodied bodies insulating the walls behind fresh drywall. Unfortunately, things go awry during the raid thanks to well placed booby-traps and several agents are killed, pushing Kate into revenge mode, and eager to join a task force which will allegedly lead her to those responsible.
No sooner does Macer say “yes” to this new assignment than she is faced with superiors and individuals whose identities, affiliations and intentions are unclear. Not her usual approach, Macer isn’t pushing for answers, but when her partner Reggie comes on board to protect her back, he demands them. The “leader” is a guy named Matt who looks and acts more like an overgrown frat boy than head of a covert operation to infiltrate Mexican cartels. And his right-hand is Alejandro who appears more like an assassin than some of the cartel assassins.
The deeper Kate and Reggie get, the murkier the waters become as there is no letter of the law, there is only the objective and to do whatever it takes to achieve it, regardless of what must be done, no matter how inhumane or brutal. Which forces us to ask – Who or what are the “Sicario”? Is it the United States and this renegade operation under Matt? Or is it the cartels themselves? The rules of engagement are in flux and the players moving like players on a chess board. Moral ambiguities intensify to the point of being completely unidentifiable and yet, no one can turn and run.
Performances are through the roof, particularly that of Emily Blunt and a very controlled and methodical Benicio Del Toro. As Kate Macer, Blunt kills it. (Pardon the pun.) She goes full bore, unflinching, commanding the screen and going toe-to-toe with Del Toro and Brolin. When it comes to Del Toro, he delivers perhaps the most intriguing performance of “Sicario” with his introverted calm and quiet take on Alejandro. He makes you crave more of Alejandro, not only on screen but in backstory and wanting to know and understand what makes him tick. Beyond compelling. We know Josh Brolin can play a cocky smart ass so while he embodies the role of Matt, it’s not a stretch. A supporting performance that is stand out comes from Daniel Kaluuya. As Kate’s partner Reggie, he is the one guy who “mans up”, who forces truth and calls “bullshit” on both Matt and Kate, the first for being an ass, and Kate for blindly following without following her ingrained protocol, without getting answers to questions. The integrity and ethic of the character and Kaluuya’s performance calls for admiration and respect in staying true to that design. Disappointing is Victor Garber who surprised me with the weakness and acquiescence of his character, FBI supervisor Dave Jennings.
Thanks to Villeneuve’s keen direction, action is rapier, not to mention well choreographed and executed while stunningly lensed by Roger Deakins. As for Deakins, he sets the visual and emotional tone with parched landscapes punctuated by the explosive horror of the color red with overtly lensed bodily mutilations and torture, but then breathtakingly balanced with widescreen beauty of a colorful starry night sky over the rising heat of a southwestern desert. It’s money shot after money shot with Deakins. Drone shots serve to steep us not only in sense of place, but immerse us in the physical journey in and out of Mexico and Juarez, all of which is well played and well placed which wraps into Joe Walker’s editing. The film’s opening sequence of a strike team led by Blunt’s Kate exacting a raid on a perceived cartel location (which we soon see is insulated with tortured bloodied bodies) sets the tone. Edge of your seat tension with an explosion so dynamic, you will jump in your theatre seat. And the tracking sequences of the various steps of the mission at hand going into Juarez? Walker cuts it with the military precision of the operation.
Applause, applause for the FX work. Decapitation, mutilation and bloody bag-over-head-bodies in walls is beyond cool. Sad is that it’s authentic and this does happen.
But let’s look at the script and story. The fact that this is a first screenplay by Taylor Sheridan is a pleasant shock. The attention to detail, the minutiae, the research done to achieve this intricacy and depth is astounding. But beyond that, it’s those very details that provide for layers of ambiguity and obfuscation that demonstrate the cyclic nature of the cartel problem and how politics comes into play – bend the rules, give a little, use whatever and whomever is at your disposal to gain an inch but hope for a mile. “Sicario” gives us a tapestried portrait of the ethical conundrum facing law enforcement and politicians every day, not to mention the trickle down affect. Makes you think yourself about where would you draw the line in the sand. Morally complex and complicated but fascinating and thought provoking at every turn.
And then there’s Johann Johannsson’s scoring, starting with the repetitive and increasing percussive bass akin to Roman troops marching to battle in ancient times, thus establishing a delicious metaphoric sonic dichotomy tied to the original definition of the “Sicarii” in Roman times. Their purpose? To kill Romans, typically for political and military purposes, by means of concealed daggers hidden in their cloaks and togas. For those who have that historical context, the scoring just deepens the experience of the film. Who’s marching into battle? The modern day definition of “Sicario” aka the hitmen, or the US led coalition trying to stop them? Brilliantly stunning.
Fascinating, non-stop, intelligent, visceral. “Sicario” cuts into the very soul with rapier swiftness and intensity.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal