Sicario is a war movie. It casts the same critical eye on the dehumanization and bad policy of the War on Drugs that so many films have cast on both its brother in fighting absurdly abstract ideas The War on Terror and that other historically great idea The Vietnam War. The DNA of this film becomes entwined in a double helix along with films like Apocalypse Now and Zero Dark Thirty Sicario deals with all the effects the disastrous War on Drugs has had including, the rise of no-knock raids (which the film starts off with), the almost total eradication of the 3rd and 4th amendment, the government made power vacuums that increase turf warfare, and the increasing collateral damage on both sides of our border with Mexico. What it is most concerned with, similar to the films listed above, is how war eats away not just at our laws, but our sense of justice and morality. This idea of course can come off as rather clichéd and trite. To chase monsters, you must become one…so on and so forth, but Sicario presents this idea with such film making skill, tension, and disregard for convention that its message lands fresh.
Sicario begins with FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) raiding a house believed to contain hostages being held for ransom by members of a Mexican drug cartel. Instead, what awaits Kate is a rabbit hole that introduces her to the darkest side of The War on Drugs. After the raid becomes publicized, Kate finds herself plucked from the FBI by “Department of Justice” agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who promises a chance to take down “The men really responsible” for the escalating violence Kate is seeing. Along with Graver is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former Mexican persecutor who will offer an experienced view of the cartel. As their mission progresses, Kate finds both it and herself drifting further away from the procedure and quality case building she believes to show good policing. She is thrust into a world she does understand and bears witness to how little her values seems to matter in the bigger picture. Kate must do all this while weathering the waters of not only who to trust, but how to keep herself alive.
The film rides on a wonderful lead performance by Emily Blunt. With a roll like Blunt’s, the temptation is always to note how masculine the performance is and immediately make that the première gauge of the roles quality. We begin to define this type of female role specifically through a male lens, seeing toughness only in the mold of Lee Marvin or Sylvester Stallone. Which is to say that it is far to rare that we allow our action heroines the chance to act both feminine and tough, we scoff at traces of vulnerability. So screenwriters and filmmakers often feel the need to double down on female hero’s toughness, often at the expense of their character’s depth. In Sicario though, Blunt creates a character that is certainly tough in the traditional sense, but what stands Kate apart in the toughness of her beliefs and how far she is willing to go for her beliefs. Blunt also does a great job of showing both the physical and mental exhaustion Kate experiences during the movie. She is able to play both a commander of a risky drug raids and someone on the verge of a total breakdown.
Blunt receives help from a wonderful supporting turn by Benicio Del Toro. Here Del Toro, reminds us what a magnificent physical actor he is. Few actors get so much out of as little dialogue as Del Toro does. Del Toro as Alejandro gets more out of his posture and his deep wounded eyes than most actors would get out of a pages of monologues. In this role Del Toro creates a character as magnetic as any we are likely to see on-screen this year. Josh Brolin also does very well with a role that comes across as underwritten. The films attempt to infuse Brolin’s character with a detached mystery only serves to create a character that never feels fully formed, especially when paired up against Del Toro. Brolin, who here feels even more like a young Tommy Lee Jones than he did in Men in Black 3, gives his character a good-ole boy charm and dry humor that sets him apart from the rest of the cast.
Denis Villeneuve is a director quickly on the rise after his one-two punch of Prisoners and Enemy in 2013. Here Villeneuve proves himself capable of telling a story on an enormous scale. The film is impressive in its scope without being overwhelmed by it. Villeneuve does a great job of allowing us to stumble on this terrible journey right along with Kate. The sense of confusion and dread that Kate feels throughout the movie permeates through to the audience. Villeneuve also keeps the violence quick and shocking. The violence he shoots is not exciting, but stomach churning. There is also much to appreciate in his technique in the film’s action scenes, especially a prisoner transport through the streets of Juarez, Mexico that uses a great sense of location and editing to create paranoia. Sicario is also one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve seen this year. Each shot is wonderfully composed, even as the film incorporates multiple types of special forces cameras.
A large dose of credit for the films beauty must go to cinematographer Roger Deakins, one of the all time greats at his craft. In Sicario Deakins presents sweeping views of Arizona and Mexico that make the terrains seem as uninhabitable and desolate as any image of Mars in The Martian. It seems counteractive to shoot the morally murky world of Sicario as so clearly, but it fits in well with the films unflinching look at the darkness the drug war brings forth.
The script by Taylor Sheridan is unconventional and all the better for it. The best part of the script is most certainly its complete disregard for any traditional sense of justice. Sheridan is unafraid to let his story and characters remain murky. Characters we like do terrible things and have terrible things done to them, leaving us to sort out the moral wreckage. The biggest flaw of the script deals with a 3rd act change in point of view, where one character threatens to become the type of unstoppable killing machine that almost feels totally out-of-place in the film. However, great acting and directing, plus a very strong final scene go along way to covering that up.
Sicario is not a perfect film, but its pure scope and disregard for easy answers makes it stand out from so many other black and white morality plays about the War on Drugs. It is unafraid to look at the cyclical and escalating nature of violence in different forms. From violence for revenge to violence as a government sanctioned stabilizing measure, the film explores the hollowness that always emerges from the use of it. More than anything else, Sicario refuses to paint over the cracks and forces us to examine what we are truly participating in as a country.