Denis Villeneuve | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R
Fighting a losing war against Mexican drug cartels in Arizona, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is keen to be enlisted to an interagency task force run by Department of Defense consultant Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Taken along for the ride but kept in the dark, Macer becomes increasingly concerned that all is not as it seems — especially when it comes to Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a mysterious task force member whose motives seem to be a big secret…
Much like his previous film, Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve here takes a storyline that could fuel a run-of-the-mill genre picture (a war-on-drugs action-thriller) and instead turns it into something altogether classier. In this regard, I’m tempted to invoke the work of directors like Hitchcock and Fincher. Sicario isn’t necessarily a film I could picture either of them making (maybe Fincher), but the way it takes a “genre movie” and elevates it artistically has a certain similarity. That said, like those directors at their best, Villeneuve here works primarily with tension and suspense — words I’m about to thoroughly overuse in this review, but they encapsulate the feeling of watching Sicario so well.
Any viewers seeking simple action thrills will not be satisfied with the sequences offered here, but the way the scenes rely on suspense rather than bullet choreography makes for a supremely tense movie; one that can grip you like a vice and only occasionally let up, letting you catch your breath before it doubles down. As viewers, we’re positioned alongside Macer, kept out of the loop and so unsure who to trust and what exactly is going on for much of the movie. In that respect the plot demands a certain level of attention, because it isn’t always spelled out in nice bitesize chunks of exposition.
Arguably, the film loses its way a little when it does reach that point. Answers are forthcoming eventually, and the third act occasionally abandons the conflicted and complex world that came before it for more straightforward and satisfying turns of events. Fortunately, the film survives such wobbles thanks to the strengths it’s already established, and with an even deeper dive into moral greyness even while it seems to be offering a simplistically fulfilling climax.
Blunt is excellent as Macer, an outwardly tough-as-nails tactical specialist who is hiding a less assured core. If that sounds almost trite then it doesn’t play that way, afforded greater subtlety by Blunt and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Macer is a capable agent, but is she capable of operating in Graver’s world? The only other character and performance that really stands beside Blunt is Del Toro’s Alejandro. Around 90% of Alejandro’s dialogue was cut by Del Toro and Villeneuve before shooting began, and it works to everyone’s favour. He’s an unreadable presence in his silence, seeming both brooding and almost bored, like he’s fed up waiting for the task force’s duties to get him where he wants to be. His silence is threatening, even after his demonstrated skill-set is (to Macer, anyway) a kind of comfort. It’s only fitting that the final scene — the real climax of the movie, hitting hard on its emotional arcs even after the plot is done — is a two-hander between Blunt and Del Toro, loaded with as much tension and suspense as any other part of the movie.
Brolin may be a headline lead alongside those two, but his character is given little to work with beyond being a son-of-a-bitch who keeps Macer onside with (deceitful) charm. He’s fine but unremarkable in that role. Perhaps the sequel will give him more to work with. More memorable is Daniel Kaluuya as Macer’s FBI partner, Reggie Wayne. More time spent with Macer and Wayne working together wouldn’t go amiss. Jon ‘the Punisher’ Bernthal also pops up in a small part, imbuing what could’ve been a sketchy plot-driver with more believability.
The film’s other real stars are behind-the-scenes. First, the Oscar-nominated cinematography by Roger Deakins. I must admit I was a little underwhelmed at first, as the film starts in the flatly-lit daytime world of the Southern US / Mexico region. Not that it’s poorly shot, just that very little of it struck me as particularly remarkable. As the film transitions to more nighttime settings, however, Deakins’ work comes vibrantly to life, starting with some majestic golden-hour shots of ominous cloud-darkened skies, which seem to visually overwhelm Macer as she begins to realise she’s out of her depth. Later, the task force descend into tunnels, and the film presents a mixture of ‘regular’ photography — so dark that only certain things can be glimpsed in the patches of light — and both thermal- and night-vision shots. I guess it’s a cliche to say the use of headcam-type footage puts the viewer there with the characters, but here it really does. Most extraordinary are the thermal shots: captured for real with a thermal vision camera, rather than a post-production special effect, they look like some heightened-reality video game, their eeriness only adding to the tension.
Tension is definitely the name of the game when it comes Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, which was also Oscar nominated. Dominated by elongated, heavy strings and pacey, heartbeat-emulating percussion, it makes the threats lurking in every corner feel tangible; makes the sense that everything is doomed and liable to go south at any moment palpable. It’s a major contributor to the film’s mood.
It may have familiar genre building-blocks at heart, but between Sheridan’s focus on character, Blunt and Del Toro’s nuanced performances, Deakins’ fantastic imagery, Jóhannsson’s intense music, and Villeneuve’s skilful orchestration of every aspect, Sicario emerges as a film that exceeds the artistic and emotional effect you’d typically expect from a “genre movie” without sacrificing the thrills that should be inherent.
Sicario is available on Netflix UK as of yesterday.
It placed 1st on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.