Sicario is an action crime thriller directed by Denis Villeneuve, with a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan. Set within the drug war that spreads across both sides of the US-Mexico border, Sicario follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a by-the-books FBI agent who is recruited to participate on a special governmental task force for a black-ops mission behind enemy lines. Joining Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a stress-free special agent, and Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), a mysterious “consultant” with unknown motivations, Kate sets out on a mission that questions everything she believes in.
This film is not about the US’s “war on drugs.” Sicario is 100% about the drug war—a meticulous difference that must be recognized. This subject matter has become more and more popular for the film industry in recent memory, but that was not always the case. In 2000, Steven Soderbergh gave us Traffic, an Oscar-winning film that broke new ground as it pertained to the drug-cartel crisis at the border; however now, in present day, this topic is seen quite often. In 2013, there was the critically acclaimed documentary Narco Cultura, which was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. And aside from Sicario, 2015 also brought us Cartel Land, a gripping documentary about vigilante groups on each side of the border fighting back against the cartels—this film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary. I mention the recent history of this genre to highlight the fact that director Denis Villeneuve does not tackle some innovative topic with Sicario. However, this film quickly became one of my absolute favorites from the year because Villeneuve and his cinematographer (Roger Deakins) have made the trek to the well of Mexican-American drug-war films and come back with a unique perspective that is both spine tingling and visually stunning.
Villeneuve and Deakins begin the film with incredibly horrific images, and these same types of gruesome illustrations are pervasive throughout. We see the walls in a seemingly empty house on the Arizona-Mexico border torn down to reveal tens of dead bodies; when the task force strolls through downtown Juarez, dead bodies hang from bridges. These moments set the tone for Villeneuve’s film. We as Americans have many anxieties and speculative expectations about our border relations with Mexico as they relate to the drug war—via these visceral images, Villeneuve and Deakins validate those fears. This is war; it is real, and it is not pretty! Another aspect of the film that stands out is its take on deceit and duality. With the exception of Kate, it is difficult to pinpoint or even comprehend the characters’ motives. It is never revealed who Matt Graver even really works for—he is a “special agent,” but for who? And Alejandro is as enigmatic as they come. Villeneuve previously tackled morally duplicitous characters in Prisoners (2013), but he expands upon that examination with far more depth in Sicario. All in all, Villeneuve crafts an inimitable vision in Sicario, and cinematographer Roger Deakins paints that picture with his camera in the most instinctive ways possible.
The acting in Sicario is absolutely first-rate. The stars are an incredibly talented trio: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, and Josh Brolin. Brolin portrays special agent Matt Graver, a seemingly relaxed soldier who has apparently found his calling in the drug war. When he first meets Kate, he strolls into FBI offices wearing the epitome of casual dress: flip-flops. Behind his laid-back exterior, though, is a menacing man—Matt takes his actual work serious, and if you are not on board, then in his mind, GTFO! Brolin has made a pretty solid career out of playing this type of character—the ostensible douche—but that is because he is such a talented actor. I always bought into Brolin in this role, and although his significance is laconic, his performance is adroit.
The film’s best performances come from Blunt and del Toro. Emily Blunt is by far one of my favorite actresses (she is incredibly talented and undeniably fetching), and in 2014, she made her mark as a cinematic badass with her role as Sergeant Rita Vrataski in Edge of Tomorrow. That performance gained her action-star credibility, but her character could not be more different in Sicario. Kate Macer plays by the rules. She needs formulaic process and boundaries. She needs a clear-cut objective. Thus, Kate is in for a rude awakening when her mission with Matt and Alejandro blurs the mechanical lines she so desperately requires. In one scene, Kate asks Matt, “What’s our objective?” Matt responds, “To dramatically overreact.” This really is the task, and it makes Kate uncomfortable. In another scene, Kate discusses tracking down the leader of the cartels, to which Alejandro responds, “Every day I cross that border, people are kidnapped with or killed with his blessing. To find him would be like discovering a vaccine.” In this moment, Kate realizes not only the gravity of her mission, but also the confliction of it—the drug cartels keep these task forces in business, so at some point they are necessary. Although I initially thought Blunt’s character was a bit too dry and unappealing, I now realize how important she is. Blunt’s performance was not showy and dramatic—the kind that will garner you Oscars. But she was calculated—effective and honest. Blunt succeeded in that endeavor. As far as Benicio del Toro, he absolutely should have been nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The complexity of his character required not panache, but enigma; it needed not loquaciousness, but quiet subtleties. Del Toro delivered with perfection. Two scenes stood out for me in regards to his performance. At one point in the film, there is a wildly gripping moment during a traffic jam on the drive back to the US from Mexico. As the tension builds, Alejandro is at the center of the commotion. Benicio del Toro thrived in this moment. Additionally, the climax of the film (which I will not spoil here) features del Toro at his best—that one scene makes the entire viewing experience worth it! Sicario is rated R for strong violence, grisly images, and language.
Sicario trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G8tlEcnrGnU
Academy Award nominations for Sicario:
Best Cinematography (Roger Deakins)
Best Original Score (Jóhann Jóhannsson)
Best Sound Editing (Alan Robert Murray)
Previous movies on the countdown of the Top 15 Films of 2015:
- Ex Machina
- Straight Outta Compton
- Kingsman: The Secret Service
- Steve Jobs
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens
- Beasts of No Nation
- The Martian