Familiar settings, tropes, themes, and intent are all lifted above and beyond in one of the most well-crafted and persistently tense films of the year.
The behind-camera crew of Sicario make up three generations of talent, working at their very best to bring something to the screen that, while by no means original in themes, approach, or tone, is a masterpiece of execution.
Writer Taylor Sheridan’s debut script is paced with tension in mind for every step, whilst broadly but effectively sketching a world we understand the tropes of, full of characters with little explicit backstory. Their past trials and future possibilities felt but just out of our view. Meanwhile veteran Oscar snub and cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins crafts every single shot with clarity, patience, and purpose. Even the ones which are conceptually dull are gorgeous. Others, like a military strike-team silhouetted against a sunset, are transfixing. The staging of the action is the best and easiest to understand of any other film this year, whilst Deakins’ talents extend to roving landscape and birds-eye views, showing a completely otherworldly side to the U.S./Mexico border. Above all of this, Denis Villeneuve, propagator of the morally uncertain and of duality with films like Prisoners and Enemy under his belt, ties it all together. Orchestrating great action, sublime performances, and underscoring everything with uncertainty, it’s confidently his best work yet.
Sicario follows idealistic FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), the leader of a task-force that tackles kidnapping. When she and her team find dead bodies stuffed in the walls of a suspect’s house, she is recruited by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) as part of a joint-agency squadron tasked with taking down the Mexican cartel responsible for the house and many other deluded crimes. Thrown into a cross-border world of bent rules and bloodshed, Kate develops an uneasy relationship with the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a figure just as mysterious as the mission itself.
Crafting a thriller around a POV character with no knowledge of their world can work really well as a reflection of the audience’s own situation, but could prove to be its very undoing without compelling actors to support the weight of misinformation. Emily Blunt however, is so strong a presence, so immediately likeable and capable, that this bullet is easily dodged. With an immaculate American accent she pulls the audience straight into the film. Her moral compass and integrity drive all her actions, and there’s a conviction to Blunt’s presence that never feels wrong or stupid, just risky. Given Macer’s own curiosity and sheer lack of information regarding what she is really there for, it becomes another element working towards the film’s constant tension. Brolin’s obnoxiously cool attitude as Graver offsets this to a perfect pitch, giving the mystery and constant uncertainty an edge of truth. He is a total dick, whether or not he’s “doing his job”, or if that job is worthwhile. But he’s likeable enough and so compelling that you want to trust him.
Towering above both of these (genuinely great) characters and performances however is Alejandro. Graver’s advice to Macer to “watch and learn” proves to be less than helpful – for the vast majority of its runtime, Del Toro is a brutally efficient, weary presence, with little else to say about him that is concrete. Even as Sicario winds to a close and the titular hitman (as the poster will tell you, ‘sicario’ means hitman in Mexico) appears to be obvious, so much is left on the periphery. In a film where the men standing in the way of evil may be just as heartless, Del Toro walks a fine line between victim and cold, calculating monster.
Sicario’s tension rarely ever lets up. When it vanishes Villeneuve only brings it back with full force later on, and where you think it may abate he continues it. In perhaps the strongest sequence, a traffic jam on the borderline bridge, audience expectations are met and then undercut as it ends and moves swiftly on, before our nerves have returned to normal. It’s phenomenal work. If what Sicario is saying about the murky actions that rule in the fight for order and control is all too familiar, its execution is unparalleled.
Sicario (2015), directed by Denis Villeneuve, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate. Certificate 15.