Cast - Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro
Director - Denis Villeneuve
Rating - 4.5/5
Howard Hawks was the one who described a great movie as one that had ‘three good scenes and no bad ones.’ Every scene in Sicario, the new film by Denis Villeneuve, is better than the last. And I can’t wait to watch it again. It is, in its own twisted way, one of the best movies of the year.
Emily Blunt plays rookie FBI agent Kate Macer, an idealistic specialist in extraction. We find her as she is just about to drive head-first into a seemingly peaceful home in Phoenix, Arizona. The home belongs to a cartel boss. There are ritualistically murdered dead bodies hidden in the basement and an explosion will soon kill two members of her team. This is the first scene. Events will only escalate.
Macer is approached by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, the shadowy man assigned to bring those behind the attack to justice. He enlists her to accompany him on a covert mission to El Paso, Texas where they are joined by an even murkier character, Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro.
The first time we really notice Alejendro is when he drily responds to Macer’s enthusiastic questions about the operation, which, by the way, has turned into an extraction of a high-value target who belongs to the Sonora Cartel from Juarez, Mexico and not El Paso as she was told. ‘You’re trying to know how the watch works,’ Alejandro says. ‘Just keep an eye on the time.’
Which brings us to the first outstanding sequence in the film: The agents enter Mexico in a convoy of indistinguishable black SUV’s, at once stealthy and conspicuous in the vast desert. Villeneuve shoots these scenes with great precision, utilizing the slow-burn approach that Breaking Bad perfected. He builds his scenes with patience and a sense of looming dread. We know the objective. Villeneuve and his writer Taylor Sheridan have already told us everything we need to know about it. We know where and when the enemy can strike. Villeneuve has shown us the bomb Hitchcock spoke about. Now all we can do is wait for it to explode.
And boy, does it explode. The scene is relentlessly brutal and shockingly violent. We understand our characters for the first time. Blunt is our surrogate, Brolin is the unpredictable wildcard and del Toro is the sage guiding them. It is his movie. Together, they are the crusaders charged with bringing the untouchable monster that is the cartel, down.
Macer is tricked into this murky world of shadowy dealings and too many secrets. She is hardly ever given the entire picture. Villeneuve makes the canny decision to not have any subtitles, and a fair portion of the film is in Spanish. But before you recoil in confusion, let me explain. By not being on the same page a lot of the time, the film always stays a few steps ahead of us. We find ourselves always trying to catch up, involved every step of the way. Like Macer, we are stranded, only to be knocked off our feet when the fog finally clears.
Watch the trailer here
Sicario has a tendency to slip under your skin and into your bloodstream as it goes from one morally grey situation to another. Aside from the stray, solemn chords of cello, the score is entirely made up of foreboding guttural growls. Like an addled Pavlovian dog, you tense up at the first sign of the sorrowful rumbling of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score.
Another one of the film’s highlights is the striking cinematography of the great Roger Deakins. It is perhaps one of the great travesties of cinema that the legendary DP hasn’t won a single Oscar from his 12 nominations. He shoots the desolate Mexican landscape in all its stark beauty and the indoors in gloomily gorgeous fluorescence.
It is curious that Sicario arrives so soon after Johnny Depp’s Black Mass. That film also dealt with internal corruption within the law enforcement agencies of America. But perhaps the film that it resembles the most is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, complete with a steely female hero trying to survive in a murky system and a third act showdown shot in night vision and thermal imaging in the kind of labyrinth’s El Chapo must’ve escaped in.
Villeneuve is no stranger to bleak cinema. As great as this is, his best film remains Incendies (2010). He refuses to make a bad movie, and here he takes a machete to the farce that is the United States’ so called War on Drugs. The ‘war’ is a relic of the Raegan era, a senseless bunch of arbitrary laws made up of disproportionate sentencing for non-violent crimes and overt racism.
There are no winners here. Every character, in their own way, is broken. Some, like Alejandro, more than others. Benicio del Toro steals the show here, loudly announcing his return, in what is ironically one of the most subtle performances he has ever delivered. For a man whose name is synonymous with drug movies like Traffic and Savages, it is remarkable that he manages to stand head and shoulders above the rest.
Sicario is part drug thriller, part crime saga, but more than anything else, it is a tale of revenge. But what good is revenge in a ‘land of wolves’? What good is revenge in a world where the innocent are beaten into submission and the only victories are the ones where you turn your enemies against each other? This film isn’t concerned with tender moments, but when it takes a breath and surveys the meaningless chaos in the world, it hits hard. And then you realize it’s only been two days since those hidden bodies, and you take a breath and survey the chaos in the world. That is when Sicario soars. This war will never end, but the battles can.
The author tweets @NaaharRohan