***1/2 out of ****
for strong violence, grisly images, and language
Released: October 2, 2015
Runtime: 121 minutes
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Jeffrey Donovan
Sicario is ranked #11 in the Honorable Mention section of my Top Ten List for 2015
Sicario is a procedural with few revelations, and a crime thriller with minimal action. Normally that would be the summation of a movie that falls horribly flat, but in this case – and in the hands of Denis Villeneuve, possibly the best emerging director today – they’re strengths.
Reminiscent of Michael Mann dramas at their peak (Heat, The Insider, Collateral), Sicario – which is the Latin American term for “hitman” – is a cold, ominous, and slick look into the United States’ covert tactics for the ongoing drug war. Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt, in a potent performance worthy of Oscar buzz) is an idealistic FBI agent who’s recruited to join an off-the-books task force as they infiltrate one of the leading border drug cartels in Juarez, Mexico.
Rather than the typical pre-mission download of information and strategies, Mercer is simply given a gun, whisked away, and expected to follow and keep up. She doesn’t know what their specific mission is, nor do we, and that mystery pulls us in as palpable tension mounts. Facts aren’t forthcoming but eventually the need to strike does, and it all happens in sudden and less-than-ideal circumstances.
Mercer presses the team leader Matt Graver – a guy whose cocksure cowboy spirit belies a dead-serious resolve – for information about why she was recruited, who their target is, and what they’re really after. Graver (played with a swaggering gusto by Josh Brolin) just smiles and ignores, offering simple orders and advice, but no answers. His team isn’t looking to capture and prosecute; their sole intent seems simply to create chaos.
The most mysterious person in Graver’s unit is Alejandro (Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro, in a long overdue return to form), a marksman who appears to be the most important member of the team yet still plays by his own rules – to no one’s objection, not even Graver’s. Suffice it to say, Mercer doesn’t really know who she’s working with or what she’s gotten herself into, and the film uses that ignorance – in very dangers situations – to ratchet tension to maximum effect.
The story is one slow and steady build, but rather than trying our patience Sicario sustains it with an increasing sense of dread (although not quite as gut-churning as Villeneuve’s Prisoners from 2013), and rewards it with perfectly calculated twists along the way. Villeneuve is a master filmmaker, in complete and total control of his craft, from the composition of every frame to the tone of every moment. This is not a director that finds his movie along the way; he knows what he wants from start to finish, and gets it with stark and uncompromising clarity.
Through it all, Villeneuve’s not simply a supreme stylist; he evokes searing performances from his cast, ones that show restraint while exuding the turmoil, anxieties, and vengeance that boil beneath the surface. And as his story explores the complexities of the drug war, Villeneuve also patiently layers subplots that humanize that war’s most personal, tragic costs.
Sicario isn’t the type of film that resolves clean. If anything, it leaves you contemplating the harsh possibility that things may actually be worse than you thought. But it’s exactly the kind of brainy genre piece that stands out in its own right, and also makes you thrilled at the prospect of what Villeneuve will do with the franchise he’s just been handed: Blade Runner. Whatever fears people have about rebooting that classic can now officially stop. Bring on Deckard.