In the slow burn, high heat of an opening sequence Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer leads her assault rifle-outfitted FBI unit through a raid on what appears to be a Cartel hideout. But coming within an inch of a shotgun blast in the process was only a fraction of what the house of horrors had to offer. Upon further inspection of the walls, the unit discovers heaps of dead bodies in the place of insulator – subsequently forcing even Kate’s hardy wingman, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) to step out into the sand-baked flats for a breather as backup continues to search the property. Without warning the shed, a mere dozen feet from Reggie and CIA exec Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) explodes in an ear-piercing dust cloud – transforming the modest yard into a beige blur of a wasteland. Assault rifles, a hefty body count, and covert explosives suggest Kate’s well below the border, much less a potential middle eastern warzone.
A cut: a camera feed provides a bird’s eye view of the dusty aftermath, but our eyes are fixed on the two words before the headline scrolling along the bottom the news report. New Mexico.
‘Sicario’ is the latest film from budding French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, whose 2013 featured a pair of psychological character studies, rotating between the $46 million budget of ‘Prisoners’ and the small Toronto-based Jake Gyllenhaal gallery of ‘Enemy.’ In both cases, however, Villeneuve supplies ample evidence of his masterful grasp on the phycology of the thriller when either film could have easily wondered into a traditional mystery or art-house catastrophe respectively. Such is the case with ‘Sicario,’ a perplexing picture, engagingly in terms of the morals of its either deteriorating or too far-gone characters, but not so much in regard to a slight misstep along the way.
As illustrated in the above description of the introductory sequence, Scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan (‘Sons of Anarchy’) is transfixed on questioning the audiences’ values; how much less of an impact would that explosive disaster had had if it took place well below the border? Kate Macer, either as an ignorantly patriotic or boldly self-assured answer, doesn’t hesitate in accepting a subsequent offer to follow Matt Graver (a humorously desensitized Josh Brolin) just beyond the border in pursuit of a Cartel honcho. It doesn’t take long before regret creeps onto Kate, as one of her earliest moral confrontations comes in the form of the deadpan Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose trigger finger leadership during a hectic ambush at the border spilt blood and lead mere inches from both on looking Americans and Mexicans.
It’s these types of scenes that lie at the heart of ‘Sicario.’ Sheridan’s script isn’t one filled with twists and turns, but is better visualized as one, long, dimly lit tunnel – wherein the plot follows a relatively linear trail to the potential imprisonment of this monster, but is littered with unforeseeable darkness. As in ‘Enemy,’ Villeneuve generates suspense with minimal alterations to the contained situation. The border transport sequence is a prime example of this, for the conflict with the cartel remains the same while a scanning camera invokes paranoia as anyone in a car, on the street, or even in the police convoy poses a threat. And even moments before the cartel strikes at the border, Villeneuve isn’t afraid to prematurely reveal the gangsters, for the claustrophobic jam of cars has created a whole new level of danger and disarray. And then it’s over. The prisoner is safe, and all goes according to plan. It’s Kate who’s changed.
Blunt exhibits Kate’s weathering with dynamic devolution. She droops her already stale stare while an increasing reliance on cigarettes shine a growing fault in her armor. Yet Blunt moves with conviction and talks with adamant purpose despite knowing and being repeatedly told she’s out of her element. Perhaps the most intriguing part of Kate’s character, though, has nothing to do with Blunt. Whereas the majority of feminist films are concerned with building a strong female character, ‘Sicario’ rather tears its down. Kate is already atop the FBI, she’s being asked to join a CIA op, and has displayed prowess in leading the aforementioned raid, and apprehending several other prominent cartel figures. In Mexico she’s still surrounded by burley men and still taking orders from masculine superiors in Brolin and Del Toro’s characters. Subconsciously we want to believe these conflicts are what empower her as a woman, but, the part being originally written for a male, we rather see Kate’s strength where she’s weakest. “I’m not a soldier,” says Kate, and we believe her because the harassment, violence, and horrors she witnesses justify her loosing grasp on the law and make her human in a land of wolves.
Contrasting Kate is a standout Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro, a former hitman (‘sicario’ in Mexican) who works both sides of the law to avenge the gruesome deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of Fausto Alarcon – the same cartel head sought by the CIA. Unlike Kate, Alejandro is a wolf, mercilessly killing whoever stands between him and his fruitless absolution. Thus, Alejandro is the embodiment of ‘Sicario’s moral conundrum – Del Toro’s worn speech and aching eyes invoke sympathy, yet the lengths at which he goes through in seeking salvation make it difficult to justify his ruthless violence. At times, Del Toro’s performance with Alejandro’s backstory, a third act that seemingly escapes Blunt, and even the film’s title all suggest ‘Sicario’ could have been Alejandro’s story.
Someone’s story that shouldn’t have been told, however, is the intercut tale of Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) – a gangster with a family. And that’s all you really need to know. The handful of scenes between Silvio and his son are touching, yes, and do show a different side of the conflict, but only in the briefest way possible. In lieu of avoiding spoilers, when his arc nears its climax and Silvio states, “I have a son,” we could have simply inferred everything the film spent roughly 10 minutes showing us whilst slowing down the pace significantly in the process. It feels as though Sheridan wanted to innovate the tired cliché but instead wound up drawing it out – an experimental misstep that wouldn’t have been nearly as tolerable if not for Hernandez’s performance and Villeneuve unrelenting patience.
Credit, though, should also be rightly reserved for veteran Cinematographer Roger Deakins (‘Skyfall,’ ‘Fargo’), not only making Villeneuve’s extended sequences more than tolerable but also framing a lived in gallery from start to finish. Deakins embraces the notable horizon, injecting muted cobalt and blacks during a dusk precursor to a fever dream tunnel raid. In a fluid cycle between first-person night vision and infrared viewpoints against compressing tracking shots, Deakins helms the sequence in a surreal straddle of authentic engrossment and bedeviled eye-candy.
‘Sicario’ receives a 4.5/5