On the street beneath the highway hang a group of incomplete bodies warning others the status quo is not to be resisted. Police pass by leaving them as they are, maybe out of fear, or maybe they too want the message communicated. A few streets over children play outside, unfazed by the familiar sound of gunshots being traded in the surrounding blocks, enjoying what time they have left before reality swallows them up too. This is a world beyond the understanding of Americans, but as Sicario will tell you, it’s one they are compelled to involve themselves in.
Here is a film that deftly balances exploring its overarching metaphor while remaining a captivating and tense thriller in and of itself. Sicario’s dark tone and unrelenting tension are memorising, keeping you on the edge of your seat and forever dangling its maddening question in front of your face.
After a brush with the chaotic foreign drug trade creeping into America’s borders, Emily Blunt’s up-and-coming FBI agent Kate Macer is swept up by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to join his governmentally elected task force. Desperate to ‘make a real difference’ and burdened by curiosity, Macer allows herself to be pulled ever deeper into Graver’s operation despite the uncomfortable questions regarding exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it.
Writer Taylor Sheridan employs Macer not only as our guide into Sicario’s nihilistic world, but also as an avatar for the more idealistic reasons for international intervention. There is legitimacy to looking outward and fearing the chaos could reach back home, and the American compulsion to try and fix what’s broken is enough for Macer to march on down the rabbit hole despite knowing she is being manipulated. Virtuous though her motivations may be, trying to make a difference means surrendering to orders that either don’t make sense or feel wrong, and stirring up a fragile ecosystem she or her fellow Americans may know nothing about.
Sicario is a film that begs to be disassembled and discussed well after it finishes, so exploring its thesis too deeply here would no doubt spoil some of the experience. I will just say that Sheridan’s parable is both complex and elegant, illustrating beautifully both the necessity and futility of the U.S.’s repetitious ventures into deeply rooted foreign conflicts.
As cerebral an experience as Sicario is, director Denis Villeneuve allows all of its heady concepts to play out in the subtext and makes sure the movie you have in front of you is just as enjoyable to watch as it is to think about. Sicario is every bit as visceral as it is intellectual, with Villeneuve immediately defining a sense of dread that lingers for every frame following. In truth, Sicario’s action is actually fairly minimal, and feels fairly authentic and unexaggerated whenever it does come about, but the atmosphere the film creates will have your heart pounding to the ominous sense that something is forever wrong. Being so on edge makes every bullet more terrifying, especially with the plot obscuring what each shot actually means, and therefore what it will cause.
Equally deserving of praise for Sicario’s anxious aura is composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and his deep, foreboding score. As tension builds and builds and builds, Jóhannsson’s slightly muted tones throb against the silence, oscillating with growing momentum as control of the situation drifts away and the icy fear takes hold. It’s a style that’s becoming more and more popular with action-thrillers, and deservedly so, but Sicario is easily one of the best application of these techniques I can recall, and I certainly couldn’t imagine the film leaving the impression it did with a more traditional soundscape.
Blunt is expectedly excellent as shaken but determined Macer, a protagonist that runs the risk of seeming weak-willed or hypocritical as she protests being so constantly out of the loop and questioning the strategy and ethics of her operation while still following any order given. Blunt avoids this naiveté by contextualising her motives sheerly through her performance. With little to no exposition defining her, Blunt paints subtle fears and vulnerabilities that underline her character, defining her need to a make the world a safer a place an absolute necessity. With this approach, Blunt ensures Macer doesn’t come across as malleable, rather a woman for whom accomplishing the mission is more important than the objections haunting her.
Of all Macer’s many questions, the most pivotal rests on her mysterious ally, Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro. Though many of their interactions are quite warm (Alejandro often acts as a calming mentor figure), the question of who he is and what the hell he is doing there simply does not fit her team’s narrative and disturbs her to no end. While Blunt is deserving of praise, it’s Del Toro that leaves the biggest impression. Del Toro gives Alejandro an unnerving detachment, but also a tender fatherly quality that calms both Macer and the viewer as the question marks begin to overwhelm. Sicario teases both his light and dark aspects in short bursts, leaving you begging for a chance to finally see him clearly and unfettered, which you very much do in the film’s final act.
Unfortunately, this payoff is cheapened by a rare spot of exposition earlier in the film explaining Alejandro’s true motivations. It’s a bizarre choice for a film that plays so well with the absence of information to blurt out something key and robbing the climax of duality by making it about something familiar and, frankly, a little uninspired. There is enough information seeded that this wasn’t necessary and could have left the key third act sequence with much more intrigue, but in this one instance Sicario took the easy way out.
Luckily, this is one small blemish on an otherwise brilliant piece of cinema. While it may be a little dry for some people’s tastes, Sicario is one of the most intelligent and intense thrillers to grace the cinema screen all year. Brimming with smart ideas, inspired characters and gut-churning suspense, this is a film not to be missed.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10