Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Genre: Drama/ Thriller
After a routine operation near the USA – Mexico border leads to some dark revelations and tragedy, idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) is enlisted into a task force whose mission is to eradicate the Mexican drug cartels. However, as Kate becomes more involved with this dark and deadly world, her own beliefs and ideologies are put through extreme tests.
I often state that what makes a good film is not necessarily the story itself, but how the narrative presents that said story. Denis Villeneuve’s 2013 film Prisoners took what was essentially a rather generic story in places (especially the revelations in the film’s final third) but it used this story to not only explore some truly compelling themes and ideas, but it was also an incredibly involving, and ultimately rather haunting character study. Villeneuve also got superb and committed performances from his actors that certainly only enhanced the film’s raw and unforgettable power.
Well for Sicario Villeneuve and his team have achieved exactly the same feat; the film’s overall story is certainly something that has been seen many times before, but Villeneuve skilfully avoids Sicario becoming yet another generic action film to make it one of the year’s best action thrillers. With his previous films that also include the excellent Incendies and Enemy he seems to be a director that can handle any budget and any genre, and he has most definitely established his name as a hallmark of a top quality film.
From the film’s chilling opening sequence Villeneuve sets the tone; this is a film with some brutal and rather cynical ideologies and will be presenting us with an unforgiving world where we are never sure of the rules or code. The story is told through the eyes of the protagonist, and she and the audience learn things together and go on the same journey of dark discovery. Sicario is not a film where we have a Neeson or a Washington as the protagonist where their seeming boundless knowledge of everything renders them in total control of every plot point (and indeed plot hole) leading to more than an element of predictability. One of the reasons Sicario is so compelling and involving is the unpredictability that results from our protagonist being increasingly out of her depth and out of control of what is happening around her, brought on by the fact Kate’s journey is also the viewer’s journey. The narrative contains many developments and revelations that are total emotional gut punches to Kate that turn her world upside down and question everything she believed in, and thanks to Villeneuve’s skilful storytelling the viewer shares these feelings with her.
The film’s action sequences are also skilfully put together; Villeneuve proved in Prisoners that running time is not a restriction, but something he can use to his favour, and the stunning sequences in Sicario are intentionally staged and measured slowly, producing a viewing experience of raw and genuine tension. Villeneuve’s intentionally measured approach proves that nothing happening can in fact be far more tense and engaging than countless streams of bullets. There are plenty of bullets shot in Sicario, but Villeneuve makes sure that gunfire is used sparingly so that every bullet counts, and thanks to the superb sound editing, is truly felt by the viewer.
The fact Sicario is such a genuinely gripping film from start to finish is of course not only achieved by every component of the film working, but also every member of the cast and crew playing their part. The performances are superb; Emily Blunt captures the emotional journey Kate goes on perfectly and how her well-intentioned but naïve approach is soon utterly shattered by the discoveries she makes and her increasing feelings of vulnerability. Excellent support is also provided by Benicio Del Toro in a long overdue role reminding us that he can be both charismatic and genuinely menacing as the mysterious Latin American Alejandro, whose actual intentions and loyalties are always questionable. Meanwhile Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver is the usual hardened and uncompromising character that Brolin often plays with absolute aplomb.
The rest of the crew certainly also play their part; Taylor Sheridan’s taught script skilfully keeps its cards close to its chest, only adding to the film’s tension and our emotional involvement with the protagonist’s journey. Meanwhile two people who also made a huge contribution to Prisoners being such a great film once again play a crucial role; Composer Jóhan Jóhannsson puts together an unsettling score of pounding drums and sforzandos that add to the tension, while director of photography Roger Deakin’s sun-drenched cinematography helps us truly feel the climate of the film’s geographical setting.
At times Villeneuve’s measured pace and the raw, naturalistic dialogue makes Sicario hard work, and an unexpected shift in point of view for an extended sequence in the final third is well made, but does ultimately feel completely out of place and does slightly contradict the rest of the film’s tone and style. However these are minor quibbles, and this effort is ultimately rewarded by just how skilfully what could have been an extremely generic action film is made into a genuinely emotionally involving and often truly intense thriller. Villeneuve is undoubtedly a master of his craft, and of his two projects currently in the pipeline, one appears to be a new Bladerunner film, my natural reaction to this would be one of extreme nervousness, but with Villeneuve at the helm it is genuinely exciting!
A sublime exercise in genuine cinematic tension; with Sicario Villeneuve takes what could easily be yet another generic genre piece and skilfully turns it into one of the year’s best and most emotionally involving thrillers.