We enter the world of Sicario through the eyes of Kate, an honest, law-abiding FBI badass played convincingly by Emily Blunt. After being selected for a secretive CIA operation targeting a Mexican cartel, Kate is often left in the dark by her superiors, just as we are left in the dark by French-Canadian director Denis Belleneuve. Along with Kate, we wonder what the CIA’s ultimate goal is, why she has been chosen, and why a U.S. government agency would feel legally or morally obliged to enter a different country and kill citizens of said country. The first two questions are eventually answered by the operations mastermind Matt (Josh Brolin), but the last is left unanswerable. As much as Sicario works as an exciting military thriller, Velleneuve also uses the film to explore the overlap, or lack thereof, between physical borders and moral boundaries.
There are specific scenes in the film that are easily among the most technically impressive of the year, visually astonishing and edited with such airtight precision that there are zero cracks through which the expertly-crafted tension can escape. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins works in tandem with Villeneuve not just to capture the look and texture of Mexico in all its awe-inspiring beauty, but to display action and suspense in ways that have never been attempted before. Whether it’s a foreboding drug raid which hides disturbing secrets, a mind-boggling cave shootout filmed partially in thermal and night vision, or a breathless and brutal mansion infiltration, these individual sequences are worth the price of admission alone.
It’s the space in between those masterful sections where the movie fails to provide likable characters (as interesting and well-acted as they may be) or a decent sense of progression. Though Blunt makes for a convincing, sympathetic military figure, the few times we see her out of uniform gives us very few real personality traits to hold on to. She mostly stands in as a cipher for the audience, meant to feel as out-of-the-loop as we do. Her frustration causes us frustration, but all she does about it is complain until she’s reprimanded further. We’re told she’s the best FBI agent around, but the complacency she demonstrates throughout the film undermines that claim. As a result of her confusion and subordination, the film moves in circles. A lot of things happen without any forward momentum.
Kate’s constant sidelining within the narrative becomes even more pronounced when she is abruptly replaced as the main character by Benicio del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro. Unlike Kate, Alejandro takes everything into his own hands, with no moral scruples or the need to seek permission from others. They are exact opposites, and we clearly see how being a violent psychopath can move the story forward and create progress, whereas waiting for the go-ahead and complaining about the morality of a situation can often lead to utter, insufferable gridlock.
With one of the best supporting performances of the year (which becomes more like a lead performance with the amount of screen-time given to him in the last third), del Toro completely owns this film. Alejandro’s calculated movements and terrifying lack of verbal communication makes him appear as some sort of efficient, animalistic one man army. Whereas we never really witness just how good of an agent Kate is, del Toro vividly demonstrates Alejandro’s power and wit, especially in the manic, bloody final act where the camera doesn’t dare leave him for more than a few moments.
It’s hard to even talk about the other performances under the shadow of del Toro, but it’s worth noting that Josh Brolin serves largely as the film’s comedic relief element. He nails it too, with the kind of laid-back attitude you really, really don’t want to believe a high-ranking CIA officer would have. Every time Brolin steps into a comedic role, he’s nothing but gold (Men in Black 3, Inherent Vice), and it’s a good thing too, as this movie’s dour perspective really needs that lighter touch.
Also surprisingly effective, and equally comedic, is relative newcomer Daniel Kaluuya as Kate’s agency partner Reggie (I had only seen Kaluuya previously in an episode of Black Mirror). Kaluuya helps eke a tiny bit more humanity out of Kate, which is definitely appreciated given the character’s thinness. The only performance I didn’t think worked was The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal (who has slowly been sneaking into movies these last couple years) as a cowboy and potential love interest for Kate. I’m not sure if it’s his performance or just his character which felt out of place, but I’m sure he added nothing to the plot except a limp twist.
Though not as relentlessly cold as Prisoners, nor as conceptually daring as Enemy, with Sicario Villeneuve now cements himself as a new master of cinematic bleakness, dousing his filmic worlds under a thick blanket of cynicism and exposing audiences to unflinching visions of human violence and madness. In fact, several moments in this film made me think of David Fincher’s masterpiece Se7en, a crime film similarly merciless in its depictions of brutality and depravity. Fincher now seems as good as a comparison as enemy for the way in which Villeneuve weaves familiar, pulpy, guilty-pleasure narratives with ambitious, envelope-pushing formal elements. Sicario remains a few crucial steps behind the majority of Fincher’s output, however, as its more interesting ideas are ultimately swallowed up by its overwrought, brooding tone. A bit more attention to narrative cohesion and character development would go a long way to conveying a necessary sense of personality behind all the darkness.
Sicario walks the delicate line between Villeneuve’s other two English-language films, the oblique, anarchic Jake Gyllenhaal doppleganger story Enemy and the mercilessly dreary, but ultimately mainstream-friendly kidnapping mystery Prisoners, balancing blockbuster and art house sensibilities smartly and authoritatively. Easily the most well-composed and accessible of the three, Sicario is both a suitably tense action movie and a pensive, stark social commentary, which also serves to highlight a director who continues to improve and to solidify his unique vision with each consecutive project.
Score: 3.5 out of 5