Sicario (2015)

The border is just another line to cross.

Denis Villeneuve is certainly a director to watch out for. Following the success of 2013’s chiller Prisoners, Villeneuve proved to be a confident filmmaker, daring enough to explore gut wrenching ‘ugliness’ in mainstream cinema.

Stretching across the lawless region between the U.S. and Mexico, his latest picture Sicario, uncovers the palpable corruption and ethical turmoil of the borderland drug war in a pulse-pounding, slickly crafted fashion. With outstanding performances from Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, and Josh Brolin, a tension fueled score by Academy Award nominee Jóhann Jóhannsson, Prisoners (2013), and snap tight direction by Villeneuve, Sicario marks another excellent piece of cinema from the master of confronting material.

‘Trust me folks, I climbed Everest!’
‘Trust me folks, I climbed Everest!’

After an explosive brush with death in Arizona, and the discovery 42 corpses in a Mexican cartel’s ‘house of death,’ FBI agent and kidnap response team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is drafted to join a special joint task force whose mission is to stop the escalating drug war between the border of the U.S. and Mexico. Headed by an enigmatic Colombian operative, who solely goes by the name of Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), and aided by her superior Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), Kate’s hunt for justice eventually turns into a dark murky arena, one that’s overflowing with ruthless cartels, deadly assassins and the loss of innocent lives, as she uncovers a battleground that will shake her to her very center.

Dealing with the escalating crime and harsh reality of an incredibly extensive cartel war, Sicario presents its tough subject matter through the idealism of a by-the-book FBI agent who’s pushed to her limits and taken to a world where justice and morality are no longer valid, a place where violence begets violence and the end result justifies the means.

Penned by Taylor Sheridan who played Deputy Chief Hale in Sons of Anarchy (2008), Sicario is framed through Kate’s point of view, allowing viewers to sympathize with her character and connect with her plight. When Kate is pushed aside and patronized by both Alejandro and Matt, we know that she’s a capable agent; heck, we’ve seen her in action and want her to prove her worth. However, when Kate finds out that Alejandro and Matt choose to abuse their authority in order to get their job done, viewers are challenged to examine their own moral compasses as the picture subverts its narrative and gets audiences thinking; maybe Matt and Alejandro are the real heroes here and Kate is just an unnerved rookie who’s yet to understand how the world really works?

Benicio del Toro takes down his Oscar competition.
Benicio del Toro takes down his Oscar competition.

Although Sicario plays more like a political film opposed to a full-on thriller, the picture features a handful stand out moments — some which feel as though they’ve been plucked right out of a first-person shooter video game. Working once again with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, No Country for Old Men (2007), Villeneuve crafts some fascinating and rather unique set pieces; a hyper-realistic night raid that switches between night vision and aerial infrared really springs to mind, while a sequence where an American convoy makes its way through the soiled streets of Juárez — passing mutilated bodies dangling from bridges — is exceedingly nerve-racking. The flick’s slow and steady build is certainly foreboding, but Sicario never quite reaches its absolute apex; its final act is riveting, even though it doesn’t measure up to its impressive build up.

Sicario is elevated further by three first-rate performances from its excellent leads. It’s refreshing to see Emily Blunt take on another Special Forces role after battling aliens in the terrific Tom Cruise sci-fi thriller Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Here, Blunt holds her own when playing alongside the ‘big boys,’ she’s even put through the ringer and forced to endure physical, emotional and sexual abuse — kudos to Blunt for pulling off such a demanding part.

The heart of Sicario lies in its most disturbing character, Alejandro, played by Benicio del Toro who returns to the territory that won him an Oscar in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000). Del Toro’s rendering of this vengeful, but tender contract killer is electrifying to say the least, echoing the likes of Javier Bardem’s psychotic hired-hand from No Country for Old Men (2007). Josh Brolin, W. (2008), the quintessential American tough guy, also does a solid job as the über-relaxed Matt Graver, adding a sense of uncanny ambiguity to the whole team and their assignment.

... waiting for a Wild Target!
… waiting for a Wild Target!

Painting a picture of a modern ‘hell on Earth,’ Villeneuve’s Sicario — which means ‘hitman’ in Spanish — is an impressive feat. Boasting colors and textures inspired by the Chihuahuan Desert and an orchestrating sense of dread through its taunt score, Sicario looks and sounds fantastic. Exposing a number of hard questions and even harder answers, this powerful, suspenseful and gripping picture speaks a thousand words in regards to the desecration of Mexico through its decade-long cartel war. Make no mistake; this is not a popcorn crowd-pleaser!

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Sicario is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia