Sicario

Release: Friday, October 2, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

In Sicario we get to take a tour south of the U.S.-Mexico border, heading to Ciudad Juárez to infiltrate the infamously violent and complex system of drug cartels that has consumed Juárez so completely it has become responsible for the random abductions of tourists and citizens alike from the streets of El Paso (an American city about 10-20 minutes from the official border), some of which occur in broad daylight. Villeneuve’s seventh feature film takes us into the lion’s den and forces us to wait around for the lion. It’s the kind of spine-tingling fear horror films wish they could inspire.

What’s most horrific is there’s nothing about Sicario that feels removed from our present-day reality. If you live in the United States you have almost no escape from news stories about escalating tensions along the Mexican border. The term ‘war on drugs’ has been ingrained into our vocabulary and on occasion we might find ourselves even using the term, almost unwittingly, in conversation. History books need to update what they consider to be the murder capital of the world, because for now it is Juárez. While the film’s events are fictionalized, they often carry the weight of the surreal headlines we’ve been appalled by. Bodies hanging from bridges with parts lopped off, as one example.

Unlike with a great many films you pay to watch in a comfy theater, you don’t simultaneously leave this movie and the problem it introduces behind. Although you’re not likely to lose sleep over the matter — especially a film that technically is dramatizing reality — Sicario is a different kind of film, one that doesn’t really feel cinematic. On that ground alone Villeneuve has accomplished something remarkable here. His latest effort is more journalistic than a fictional account, taking us deep into a dark and dangerous world that is often bypassed during our daily channel surfing from the couch because, well, the whole situation is sort of depressing.

Emily Blunt, playing idealistic (maybe naïve is the better word) FBI agent Kate Macer, serves as our access into the action. She is asked if she would like to join an elite task force that will be going after an anonymous drug kingpin, a group whose methods are going to differ from her own by-the-books modus operandi. She’s quickly persuaded by Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver, a man whose laid-back attitude is at once comforting and unnerving, to volunteer because he makes a good point: the work she’s doing in Arizona is trivial in comparison. Thus Sicario is viewed from her perspective; our discomfort owed to escalating violence and unspecific mission objectives that constantly put Kate at odds with her colleagues.

Blunt is once again a revelation in an increasingly familiar role (I mean this in the best way possible) as a no-nonsense woman who finds herself out of her depth. She’s soft-spoken but her actions demonstrate the confidence we’ve been getting used to seeing from her as of late. Adding another strong female lead character to 2015’s all-too-elite list of names, Blunt effects a stoicism that may not be quite as strong as her bulletproof jackets, as she does occasionally come undone at the seams as the pressure of her duties mounts. But because she breaks — has anyone counted how many cigarettes she goes through? — she exposes the humanity buried underneath protective gear and a lot of ammo.

As good as she is though, she can’t deliver all the drama, much less react to it, alone. Taylor Sheridan is responsible for writing one of Benecio Del Toro’s career best roles as mysterious operative Alejandro Gillick, whose past experiences make the unit’s new mission extremely personal. His is not a talkative character, but when the stakes are this high what he doesn’t say is often as important as the things he does. Along with Brolin’s loose cannon Matt Graves, the trio assembled on screen is going to end up being one of the most impressive all year.

The casting certainly goes a long way in establishing Sicario as Villeneuve’s most solemn film yet (although I guess the jury’s still out on that as I have yet to see his Incendies and Polytechnique). Once again, though, it must be Villeneuve who deserves slightly more credit. As was the case in his unbearably tense Prisoners and to a lesser degree his mind-bending Enemy of last year, his directorial touch is driven by a need to take his characters to their breaking point and far beyond it. Think Alice in Wonderland, where Alice spends virtually the entire film tumbling down a rabbit hole to hell. Only . . . there is no Wonderland, and instead of magical talking cats and some semblance of whimsy (I realize I’m making a comparison to an already fairly dark tale) we get bullet-riddled bodies and no Mad Hatter tea party to look forward to.

Whereas Alice stepping into a world entirely not her own felt dreamlike and fantastical, this situation is a nightmarish hell on earth; the fact that Kate’s moral compass does her no good only exacerbates the collective stress in the room. Alejandro and Matt ensure us that their operation is legitimate despite their methods. I guess in this world you fight fire with firepower. Borders don’t exist; even the physical one doesn’t mean much. Like Prisoners, Sicario blurs the line between sound and corrupt morality and judgment, creating one of the most captivating cinematic events of 2015. Villeneuve drops his latest film like a bomber plane drops its primary weapon: confident it will hit its target with brutal force and that the effects will be both far-reaching and devastating. His confidence isn’t misplaced.

Recommendation: Sicario is heart-pounding, fist-clenchingly tense stuff, elevated to ridiculous levels by a game cast who might never have been better. In a business where movies often struggle to overcome the need to simply entertain, it’s nice to come across another one that has a bigger agenda than that. This crime drama is a real eye-opener, a stunningly well-crafted film that has a great chance of landing high on my list of the year’s best. A must-see.

Rated: R

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “You’re asking how the watch is made. Keep your eye on the time.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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34 thoughts on “Sicario

  1. Must See This!!! Fantastic write up. I skimmed thru it since I have yet to catch it but I am definitely stoked. I just received Escobar: Paradise Lost with B. Del Toro, so that will whet my appetite till I see Sicario. Thanks man!

    • Thanks a lot for visiting Vic, hope you enjoy Paradise Lost, I’ve heard things both positive and negative about it so I’m anxious to see what that’d be like as well. Del Toro could be a pretty terrifying Escobar!

  2. Pingback: Flashforward: October’s Most Anticipated Films | Flashback/Backslide

  3. Dude, my excitement has been at a fever pitch for this one since that amazing (yes, I think it is amazing) first trailer, the simple but superb tagline (In Mexico, Sicario means Hitman), and the three person leads of Blunt, Del Toro, and Brolin. I believe I will love this as much as you do.

    • There’s almost too much to like about it honestly haha. I for one appreciated the level of uncertainty that pervaded every scene. We never quite know how anything is supposed to work out, or if it even will. That to me is the sign of a very mature film that reflects reality. Performance-wise, this is one of the best of the year in my book. I’ll be keeping an eye out for your review dude!

  4. Great review Tom! I was VERY curious about this one but since I was going on vacation, I gave my press screening to my pal Ted who loved it as well. “It’s the kind of spine-tingling fear horror films wish they could inspire” I’m kinda glad I didn’t see this on the big screen (ahead of a vacation no less) as I probably would just be watching it through my fingers. I’ve only seen ENEMY from this director so far, seems that he definitely knew how to craft REALLY tense scenes!

    • 🙂 He’s excellent at doing just that. Sicario might be his best yet just in terms of how he wrings tension out of literally every shot. Nothing is wasted here, not least the excellent trio of leads. But I think what sold me truly was that, despite it being a pretty ugly movie at times, it’s not super graphic. There are moments, yes, but I think you’d be okay in this. I think I only cite horror films b/c it’s been awhile since I’ve been this uncomfortable in a movie, and usually horror films should be the genre that does that to me. But instead it was this political film. Fascinating.

      Hope your vacation was lovely! Where did you go?

  5. I’ve not long read a review of this that branded the film as being empty and nothing but gloss. And now I read this and the feelings are quite the contrary! This movie has me even more intrigued now! I trust your opinion though Tom and to be fair this is the sort of film that could be made for yours truly. Fine work as is normal Tom!

    • I personally cannot see where there’s any validity to someone calling this movie glossy and empty. haha. I just can’t, it’s superbly done and marvelously acted. That wasn’t a review from Mark Kermode, by any chance, was it? 😉 Nothing sits well with that guy!

      Check this one out Mark, I’d love to read your review

    • I found it spectacular, and another great use of Emily Blunt in a tough (physically and emotionally) role. I think it’s Villeneuve’s best so far and if you were a fan of Prisoners then this should do you just fine.

  6. Good read Tom, as always. I’m keen to see this based on what you, and others, have said; I’m in the mood for something like this, enjoy watching the actors involved usually and have thought Enemy was excellent (Prisoners not bad either, but haven’t seen any of his other films). Think it’s out here in a couple of weeks but I will definitely see it on the big screen.

    • I need to go and take another look at Enemy. The ending was so damn bizarre I basically dismissed the whole thing as pretentious. I think my initial reaction to it was kind of harsh. If there’s one thing Villeneuve is proving it’s that he can create these intricate stories that sometimes need to be experienced several times to get the full effect. Shades of PTA and David Lynch (from what I’ve gathered) can be found in his style. With Sicario, I think he does an amazing job of just documenting reality, and in some ways this transcends drama and enters horror territory b/c of some of the things you witness. This is just a great movie man, I’m so excited about it

      • Sounds great. I must admit I’m not particularly knowledgable about the whole drug trade across the border so I was also thinking of watching Cartelland at some point, which has just been released here. Looks like an interesting documentary.
        I think we have spoken about Enemy before, a few months ago, and as much as I enjoyed the film I definitely see why you may have thought it was pretentious!

  7. Scott Tobias, editor at The Dissolve, compared this to The Silence of the Lambs, which to me means – great movie, but prepare for a rough ride. I’m ready….I think. 😯

    • Interesting cmopariosn to Silence. I definitely think the night raid sequence was reminiscent of Clarice being stalked in that basement in the dark. God that was a chilling moment.

      It was really intense for me watching this, as I used to live in El Paso back in the early ’90s. It was the first place we lived in America having moved here from England. My dad even had to cross the border into Juarez for work. Thankfully we moved away from there (1995) before things started to get really hectic. You pretty much can’t walk around in that city without fearing for your safety. It’s terrible

    • Dude Del Toro was incredible. I was getting really excited after reading your take on it, and I sure came away from the movie equally if not more so. 😀 A great, great film and it has a good shot of ending up on my Top 8 of the year come end of December.

    • Thanks kindly buddy, yeah I think you’ll get a pretty big kick out of it man, You seem to have quite a great taste in films. 🙂 The cast is great, the story is heavy but definitely not downright depressing (i mean, it wasn’t to me but I suppose it will depend on how you view the whole war on drugs) and the cinematography was gorgeous and threatening all at the same time. Great stuff, hope to see the review from you soon!

  8. Cheers for the linkage, bruv! I’m honoured!
    Great review of a film I’m very eager to see. Villenueve is on a role these days and I can’t wait to see this. I keep hearing great things and, as I respect your writing and opinion, it’s only increasing in my anticipation.

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