Bleak, vicious and unrelenting, ‘Sicario’ is a Hollywood thriller by which all other entries in the genre should be measured this year. It’s proof that artful, socially conscious films can still qualify as mainstream entertainment with plenty of white-knuckle excitement.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s latest feature just might be his best. The Montreal maverick behind such films as ‘Incendies‘, ‘Enemy‘, and ‘Polytechnique’ previously attempted to leap to Hollywood in ‘Prisoners‘, with predictably watered-down results. This time, Villeneuve finds just the right balance between studio thrills and art house chills that will hopefully open up a few more doors for him in La-la-land.
Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, a frustrated and idealistic FBI agent who struggles to keep up with Mexican cartel activity around the Arizona border. The film opens with Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) raiding an abandoned house and finding no drugs, but dozens of bodies buried in the drywall. The nasty scene sums up their struggle succinctly. No matter how close they think they’re getting to the cartels, they’re ultimately just on cleanup for a problem that only seems to get worse every time they scratch the surface.
Soon, Macer and Reggie are assigned to work alongside mysterious CIA agent Matt Graver, played by Josh Brolin in his best gum-smacking, growling bravado. He’s a man who has been around this world long enough to know how insurmountable things have become and that the only way to fight back is to get as dirty as the enemy. Without properly preparing Kate, Matt shoves the team into Mexico alongside a mysterious aid (Benicio Del Toro) to fight fire with fire. Naturally, Kate’s idealist will learn some unfortunate lessons.
From the opening shot, Villeneuve takes command over his audience and maintains control until the final frame. On a purely visceral level, ‘Sicario’ is a remarkable achievement that delivers some of the finest action and suspense set-pieces you’ll see this year (particularly a breathtaking sequence that deliberately sets audiences up to expect a car chase and then transforms a traffic jam into a deathtrap). Working with master cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve creates a movie that looks as beautiful as an art film, yet hits harder than any blockbuster.
The filmmaker also engages with the genre that presents violence as entertainment, frequently pushing violent scenes past the point of being entertaining. He even cleverly follows a seemingly insignificant character to show the weight of any death. The movie might entrance viewers, but also asks difficult moral questions without ever detracting from the forward momentum of the piece. Villeneuve always seems to be questioning genre conventions while also exploiting the cinematic pleasures of them in ways that can tickle the brains of those who care to look while also providing a pure adrenaline rush for viewers who just want the ride. It sounds simple, but it’s a filmmaking balance difficult to pull off this successfully.
The casting also turned up aces. Blunt delivers a stoic and tortured lead with strength and Josh Brolin takes so much delight in his asshole, manipulative crank that you can’t help but kind of love the guy even though he’s so reprehensible. Yet the finest performance of the film belongs to Benicio Del Toro. Equally damaged and deadly, his character remains an enigma for most of the film and De Toro vividly explores his rough edges mostly in silence. Even when all the cards are laid out and his origin is explained, Del Toro never takes the easy route to play for audience empathy. He remains a mysterious specter no matter how much we know and it’s one of his most effective performances in years.
‘Sicario’ is a tricky movie to discuss because it’s all too easy to overstate everything the filmmakers are playing with beneath the surface. While Villeneuve clearly comes at the material with a point of view and a message, he never preaches. This is an action thriller first and foremost, and delivers its toe-curling goods with style and class.
Hopefully, it will be successful enough for Villeneuve to continue down this new road of thoughtfully high end studio filmmaking. If the guy is given this level of control over his upcoming ‘Blade Runner’ project, then it just might be something to get excited about rather than a dreaded attempt to cash in on a marketable brand.