On the street beneath the highway hang a group of incomplete bodies, warning others that 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 an exploration of its overarching metaphor while remaining a captivating and tense thriller. 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 (Hell or High Water, Wind River) employs Macer as not only 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 that 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 thus stirring up a fragile ecosystem she and 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 (Arrival, Prisoners, Blade Runner 2049) 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 (the great cinematographer that is Roger Deakins, putting in more incredible work) that follows. 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 a plot slightly obscuring what each shot actually means – and therefore what it will cause.
Equally deserving of praise for Sicario’s anxious aura is late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Prisoners, The Theory of Everything), driving unease with a 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 applications of this technique 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 questions the strategy and ethics of her operation, all while still following any order given. But Blunt avoids this naiveté by contextualising Macer’s motives sheerly throug 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 with Alejandro is cheapened by a rare spot of exposition earlier in the film that, for some reason, opts to explain Alejandro’s true motivations ahead of the turn. It’s a bizarre choice for a film that plays so well with the absence of information to blurt out something key, robbing the climax of duality by making it about something familiar and, frankly, a little uninspired. There was enough seeded that could have left the key third act sequence with much more intrigue, but in this one instance Sicario took the easy way out.
Luckily, that is but one small blemish on an otherwise brilliant piece of cinema. Brimming with smart ideas, inspired characters and gut-churning suspense, Sicario remains an intelligent and intense thriller of the highest order.