Director Denis Villeneuve, once again, proves himself as more than capable of unnerving an audience. With Prisoners and Enemy, Villeneuve made two different but equally chilling thrillers. The director matches – and frequently surpasses – the thrills of those movies with his latest drama, Sicario. Three actors turning in top-tier performances headline the film, and their work doesn’t go to waste in this beautiful, horrific, and accurate depiction of the war on drugs.
This war takes place on both sides of the border. Beginning in Phoenix, Arizona, FBI agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) leads a SWAT team to free hostages in a seemingly normal suburban home. After a swift and brutal shootout, Kate and her team discover the hostages – all dead – buried in the walls. Who the agent and her team don’t find is the men behind this atrocity. Matt (Josh Brolin), a mysterious figure possibly working for the DEA and Dept. of Justice, sees potential in Kate. The flipflop-wearing, nonchalant leader of a top-secret mission doesn’t have to work too hard to convince the determined agent to join him and his team, which includes the always brooding Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) – a hired gun, also known as a “sicario.” With Alejandro’s presence and an unexpected trip to Juárez, Mexico, not El Paso, as originally promised, this leads Kate to believe Matt isn’t exactly doing things by the book.
The details of the mission are minimal – and for the better. For a two-hour movie, the script is surprisingly lean and mean. Actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (Sons of Anarchy) only shows and tells the audience what’s necessary, nothing more. The exposition is seamlessly weaved into the narrative, and there’s hardly any of it. The flawed heroes are always the main focus. While plenty of screenwriters would have spent time building up a drug lord villain, Sheridan, wisely, keeps enemy No. 1 almost always kept off-screen.
It’s an intimate story told set in an epic setting. Kate, Matt, and Alejandro are such well-drawn characters. They have their own motives and beliefs, all trying to do what the “right thing” – and sometimes that requires moral compromise, something Kate isn’t willing to do. Emily Blunt plays the most internalized character out of the trio. At the beginning of the film, after the raid, Kate is asked if everything was done legally. The agent, almost baffled by the question, responds “yes.” What could’ve been a throwaway moment instead says everything about Kate, and that character trait plays a major role in the struggle she faces, especially in the third act of Sicario.
Blunt expresses that inner-conflict perfectly. We’ve seen the actress in dramas, a musical, comedies, romances, and an action movie – and apparently there’s nothing she can’t pull off. As the actress did in Edge of Tomorrow, she plays both assured and vulnerable in Sicario. Kate can handle herself in a fight, but she’s also sometimes fearful, confused, and outmatched – making her more human, empathetic, and relatable. It’s a powerful performance, one that may not get the recognition it deserves because it’s the kind of unshowy, quiet role that often goes unrecognized come awards season. Del Toro and Brolin are just as compelling to watch. The Traffic star plays a tortured, utter force of nature, while Brolin brings much needed levity to the film.
Sicario does a fine job depicting the depraved lunacy of what drug cartels are capable of. If Villeneuve showed some of the more out-there violent acts that are committed in the drug war, some audiences would scoff and call it pure fantasy; it’s that nuts. This isn’t an easy subject matter, but Sheridan and Villeneuve don’t sugarcoat the horrors and moral complexity of the situation. Sicario is a bleak as hell movie. When Kate first arrives in Juárez she sees naked, decapitated bodies hanging from a bridge, and Villeneuve and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins let the image sink in. Everything in Sicario — the skyline, the sweat on the characters, and the blood on the streets – is palpable. The brutality and drama is so effective because of that beautiful aesthetic, which draws one more into this world.
If there’s one misstep Sicario commits, it’s with a minor subplot, following a cop in Juárez, played by the reliable Maximiliano Hernández. It’s only in the script for the final scene, so the role is serving a statement, not so much the story at hand. As powerful as that statement is – people in Juárez experience these atrocities everyday of their lives, unlike Kate – it doesn’t completely fit the rest of the film. Thankfully, the rest of Sicario is terrific. Denis Villeneuve is, unquestionably, one of the most exciting directors working today.
The Upside: Three dynamic performances; Roger Deakins’ gorgeous cinematography; Tyler Sheridan’s thoughtful script; Jóhann Johannsson’s suitably abrasive score; doesn’t gloss over the fact Kate is working in a boys’ club; surprisingly funny; an emotionally satisfying finale.
The Downside: A redundant subplot.
On The Side: Dennis Villeneuve is directing Blade Runner 2.