Sicario is the kind of film that begins with a knife thrust and spends the rest of its running time slowly twisting the handle. There has been a small handful of films made about the border drug wars, but in its own haunting way, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated follow-up to Prisoners and Enemy may be the best.
Emily Blunt continues to show off her brilliance as Kate Macer, a young, naïve FBI agent who is recruited to be part of an inter-agency cartel busting taskforce after she comes across a grisly house of corpses in an Arizona stronghold run by drug kingpin Manuel Diaz. The leader of the taskforce, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) plays to Kate’s sense of justice, convincing her that the only way to stem the flow of violence on the border between the U.S. and Mexico is to gun for the guy at the top.
Also on the taskforce is the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a supposed expert on the cartels. Kate is understandably reluctant to trust such a rogue element, but she nonetheless travels with the team between Arizona and Mexico as they attempt to gather information on the cartel and its dangerous leader.
The film is a slow burn, taking plenty of time to set up the conflict and show us why messing with the drug cartels is such dangerous business. This is wisely shown mostly through gorgeous visuals thanks to the typically excellent work of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins shoots most scenes from a variety of creative angles, allowing the audience to feel more like bystanders in the film rather than passive viewers of it. Both the beauty and violence of the harsh desert landscape where most of the film occurs are contrasted beautifully.
The masterful camerawork is bolstered by incredibly fine acting all around. Blunt gives perhaps her best performance as a woman torn between her sense of duty and her desire for survival, her dedication and her increasing desperation. Kate is completely unprepared for this work, and Blunt carries it all on her shoulders as her character begins to question why she was chosen for the taskforce to begin with. Del Toro’s work is equally reserved, which makes his character all the more formidable. It’s the kind of role he could have taken way over the top (The Usual Suspects comes to mind), but he instead settles for subtle, sinister and absolutely brilliant. Every scene he shares with Blunt is electric.
But where the film leaves its most lasting mark is its pacing. Villeneuve has proven a modern master at allowing tension to slowly build without granting release. I think of the old adage about the toad in the boiling water. You don’t even know you’re burned until it’s too late. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan smartly holds back the on-screen violence. It’s blunt and brutal in its realism, but only because there aren’t bullets flying every five minutes. There are only a handful of action scenes, but each one is memorable.
Some might find Sicario’s pacing too slow, anti-climactic or not cathartic. But its refusal to adhere to what we expect from this type of film is what makes it so good. The goal of the filmmakers was to convey one of life’s most challenging concepts: futility. The drug trade is portrayed like the Hydra; for every head you cut off, two grow back in its place. What happens when our sense of ultimate justice doesn’t jibe with the corrupt systems this world has put in place? The film’s bitter frustration over this question hits home during a quietly effective ending that is one of the best I’ve seen in a long while.
Like the brilliant Prisoners, Sicario (hitman in Spanish) has some important questions boiling underneath its gritty realism. How do we destroy the monsters we face in this world? And can we do so without becoming monsters ourselves? The fact that Sicario doesn’t provide an answer is one of the many things that make it one of the best films of the year.