Sicario is the latest thriller from Prisoners and Enemy director, Denis Villeneuve. I mistakenly made the comment on Twitter that he was an ‘up and coming director’ and thankfully someone corrected me with the fact that Villeneuve has been in the game for about twenty years. Thanks to Villeneuve’s English language films though, I’ve now got another great foreign director to jump down the rabbit hole with.
Sicario – which we are told stands for hitman in Spanish – teams Villeneuve up with Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and perennial drug film actor Benicio del Toro. He’s also joined with Prisoners cinematographer Roger Deakins, but more on that in a bit. This is the story of America, Mexico and the drug war that rages in the middle. Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer – a by the books, exceptional FBI agent who has a great track record of achieving results in dusty and dirty Arizona. After a gruesome operation where her team were meant to rescue a hostage, Macer joins up with thongs aficionado Matt (Josh Brolin) and quiet Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) to tackle another local problem. Or so she thinks.
No sooner has Macer been interviewed and agreed to join up with the new operation, she is in a car to Mexico to arrest an individual and bring him back to America for questioning. Sicario is a quietly relentless film full of impressive tension. From its explosive opening sequence to the extended trek from America, into Mexico and back again, this is a film that simply does not let up. Villeneuve is no stranger to creating a great sense of unease and disquiet as has previously been seen in both Prisoners and his Oscar nominated Incendies, and here it’s no different. This isn’t edge of your seat tension, in fact it’s worse than that because it’s tension that hums along just under the surface, waiting to strike.
The tension is aided perfectly with Roger Deakins simply stunning cinematography and composer Johan Johansson’s rattling score. Whilst the core story of Sicario is not exactly that new or impressive, the combination of great performances, great direction, sublime cinematography and stunning score all create an experience that elevates the film above its generic drug running story line. Deakins use of shots from behind people here is unique and no doubt will spawn a hundred think pieces about what it all means.
The journey into Mexico alone is a masterclass in how to stage a dramatic, tense sequence with the culminating moments at the border crossing being one of the finest shot action sequences I’ve seen in a while. The way Deakins has challenged himself to create tension with shots from inside a car is something I wish more cinematographers would challenge themselves to do. It’s exciting to see the craft of cinema used so perfectly here in ways that most cinema goers may not even notice.
Emily Blunt gives a performance that on the surface appears to not do all that much, but just like that aforementioned tension, there is a lot going on under the surface with her performance. One could argue that her character isn’t really all that important and is not given all that much to do, but in fact her character is the crux to the story and is the reason why the plot moves along the way it does. Without her, this all could not happen. Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro are both great in their roles as men who simply want to keep things moving along. There is a drug war that is raging on, and the American side is losing. It’s their role to balance the playing field. They are the team that drive the ‘hitmen’ of the title.
Villeneuve has created a film that feels equal to No Country For Old Men in tone and plot. This is a film where there is no main character – everyone is equal. When the last act occurs and it suddenly becomes very focused on del Toro’s character, you could feel short changed, but no more short changed than the sudden disappearance of Brolin’s character in the Coen Brothers classic. To be fair, I am not a huge fan of No Country For Old Men – I found it a competent film that also managed tension wonderfully, however I found myself always at a distance from what was happening on screen. That too is my one complaint with Sicario. I was thrilled by it, I was intrigued by it, the last few scenes make this film even more impressive as well, however, great performances, cinematography, direction and score aside, I always felt at a distance from the film. I never found myself caring for the fate of these characters. Nor should I care about the fate of the characters as this is a story about the world at large. This is a story that is more interested in assessing America’s role in the drug trade than telling a deep character study, something that I feel the superior Prisoners managed to do.
Overall, Sicario is an impressive film that is well worth watching and one that I thoroughly look forward to seeing again. Deakins cinematography alone is worth the admission (someone give this man an Oscar for crying out loud!) regardless of whether drug related films are your thing or not. Heck, the pairing of Villeneuve and Deakins has made me marginally excited for the upcoming Blade Runner sequel.