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Sicario Review: Who’s Good And Who’s Bad?
Minor Spoilers Ahead
Imagine a snake wrapped around your neck, slowly tightening its grip, suffocating you, never letting go. That’s what it’s like watching Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. Sicario is an intense thriller that pulls back the curtain on the Mexican drug war, despite not offering anything new in terms of plot.
Sicario is the journey of ambitious FBI agent Kate Macer, played by a reserved and vulnerable Emily Blunt, who’s pulled into a government task force trying to find a Mexican drug lord responsible for the deaths of hundreds of innocents. However, Kate finds the Mexicans’ drug cartels aren’t the only bad guys she’ll be dealing with: she might be working with them.
It’s a smart move by Villeneuve to cast a female lead. Being a female in the world of shady DEA agents and Delta Force operatives, Kate is always at odds with their methods, and it makes the audience feel Macer’s vulnerability, something the film nails, as well as its tone.
From the opening scene, Villeneuve demonstrates control in Sicario’s suffocating tone and sense of dread. He uses a rumbling base from composer Johann Johannson to punctuate a grim opening scene where the FBI storm a small drug den only to find more than they bargained for, resulting in fatalities to Kate’s squad. It means Kate wants to find the people responsible for their deaths, and it sets off a trip into a heart of darkness, a kind of desert Apocalypse Now.
After the opening scene Kate is summoned to the CIA offices and offered a role in helping a government-selected task force bring down the people “really responsible for today.” All is well and good, Kate is ready to help, but the task force she’s assigned to is made up of Texas cowboy’s, macho Delta Force guys, Josh Brolin, Matt Graver – another cowboy with a smirk, and the shady Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro, a menacing, yet fatherly figure to Kate.
The task force doesn’t exactly make it easy for Kate to fit in. They keep her as much in the dark as possible about their objective, even at one point telling her she’ll be going to El Paso, when they’re actually headed to Juarez, which means crossing the border into Mexico, where they have no jurisdiction. They’re a tough bunch, using aggressive tactics and torture to get what they want. This heightens the tension, as to Kate these guys are bad guys just as much as the Mexican cartels.
Kate becomes a mouthpiece for the audience, allowing us to relate more to her as we feel her unease at the whole situation.
The script, written by first timer, Taylor Sheridan is rightly sparse, drip-feeding us bits of information as to what exactly is the objective of Kate assigned mission. There’s a strong sense that Del Toro’s character has more to him than meets the eye, and that things are a little more personal for him than Kate, which leads to one of the problems the film has.
Without divulging into any spoilers, I will say that Del Toro’s Alejandro comes out of the film the more developed, more interesting character by the end, while Kate ends up a little passive and flat. She just reacts to everything that goes on around her without making any changes to how the story plays out. Only Alejandro has the power to do that. By the end I couldn’t help but feel the point of view in the film was wrong. It’s a shame, a strong female lead is hard to come by nowadays, but Kate just isn’t that character. Blunt plays the role with enough vulnerability and stubbornness that cries out for a better written role for her.
The same goes for relative newcomer, Daniel Kaluuya who plays her close ally in the film. Kaluuya’s character is tough. He held his own against the powerful duo of Josh Brolin and Del Toro. It’s a shame his role wasn’t meatier. Most credit must go to Del Toro though, who I’ve never seen look so believable and fierce in a role – he simmers in every frame and owns the screen.
The screen is also so hard to take your eyes way from because cinematographer Roger Deakins again delivers irresistible scenery with wide shots of the desert, which helps grow the film’s feeling of unease. Deakins’ POV shot right at the start is a real standout, very similar to the Coen Brothers’ POV shots from Raising Arizona. But Deakins’ magnum opus is a tunnel sequence near the end which is partly shot in night vision and outdoes the night vision sequence of Zero Dark Thirty.
Final praise must go to composer Johann Johannson who keeps subtly replaying a thumping base whenever trouble is near that keeps the sense of dread and inches it up as things get more and more serious. It’s a score that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror film.
But Sicario isn’t a horror film; it’s a straight up thriller offers nothing new in its genre, but executes its story with enough pleasure and smooth direction that it will probably go down as one of 2015’s best thrillers.
- On a side note, Sicario has already announced a sequel with Taylor Sheridan returning to pen the script and Del Toro to star. The sequel is reportedly going to center on Alejandro. No word if Villeneuve will direct yet.
- Emily Blunt's grounded performance
- The thumping, brooding score
- Roger Deakins' cinematography
- Emily Blunt's character becomes redundant