Movie review: Sicario
Emily Blunt kicks down the doors as Kate Macer, an above-board FBI agent who ends up knee deep in the decomposing corpses of cartel land
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Victor Garber
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Running time: 121 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
There used to be a difference between war movies, gangster movies and thrillers – to the point that each is considered a genre in its own right.
But Sicario proves the walls that once separated screen violence into digestible moral chunks have been blown to smithereens, razed to the ground by a whole new reality.
War movies can no longer separate good and evil into identifiable sides, gangster movies have bankers and boards of directors, and thrillers have lost a lot of their thrill because the scariest images we see are on our iPhones, streaming live as news.
The world is awash in buckets of blood and bullets and bodies, and they’re splashing and cracking Hollywood’s lens, blurring the moral focus and forcing the audience to ask questions that can’t be answered with any righteous certainty.
It’s the reason why Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario is so brilliant, and at the same time, so unsatisfying – at least from a moral perspective.
Taking a dip in the deep, dark, shark-infested pool of Mexico’s drug cartels, Sicario is both a gangster movie and a war movie. We watch a string of military operations carried out on Mexican gangs, but the central drama concerns Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a tough-but-human FBI agent.
Kate works for the bureau in Phoenix, and when a takedown goes wrong at the top of the reel, she’s eager for some payback. She wants to find the bad guys and hold them accountable. But these guys are so bad, they’re completely out of reach – shielded by insiders and politicians.
Enter Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a mysterious man in flip-flops with a military gait. Matt convinces Kate to volunteer for a mission, and before she realizes what’s she’s gotten herself into, she’s in way over her head.
On paper, the plot from Taylor Sheridan’s pen looks rather generic: a pretty, moral heroine is forced to face an evil enemy without any code at all. It’s Alien, Silence of the Lambs and The Hunger Games all rolled into one.
But Sicario is based in everyday facts, everyday violence, and that’s why the stakes for Villeneuve’s film are that much higher: He’s telling an urgent news story in addition to creating a profit-minded entertainment.
It’s a dicey deal, but the Quebec director who emerged in the wake of Maelstrom (2000) and hasn’t hit a bad note since pulls it off with predictable grace.
His success starts with the landscape. Hovering over the ancient seabed that is Southern Arizona, Villeneuve takes us to a Martian landscape with subdivisions. Everything feels a little alien, and a little altered, no matter how familiar the actual sites may be.
It’s a sensation created first with the stunning visuals from Roger Deakins, and enhanced by Villeneuve’s hand as he uses Kate Macer to map the new landscape.
Macer is the kind of character audiences always fall in love with: strong and beautiful, smart but slightly badass, she’s a sexy goofball who knows how to clean a gun and carry a comrade to safety.
She is made of moral metal, but once she hooks up with Graver, she’s immersed in an acid bath where right and wrong turn into gelatinous goo. The only person who seems to understand her changing state is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man in a white linen suit who attends all the special ops meetings, but says nothing at all.
Macer tries to get to know him a bit better, but he’s not much of a talker. She’s on her own, which only makes her seem more vulnerable, and gives Villeneuve another suspense lever to play with — and you do get the feeling he’s playing.
That’s why it’s so much fun to watch him work: There’s a joyful energy to the frames, even when they’re drenched in amoral malevolence. He uses all kinds of camera techniques, but they’re all used with thematic purpose—from the bumpy handheld to the artsy tripod shots composed with an eye for Renaissance masters.
It’s all there if you look for it, but chances are, you’ll be too wrapped up in the suspense to even notice the filters and the fluid angles because Blunt is so sharp on screen.
Reminiscent of Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, or her Eleanor Arroway from Contact, Blunt finds the crisp edges of her character. So even when the rest of the cast starts to disappear into the blurry background, wearing dehumanizing body armor and night-vision goggles, we can always see her – in every sense of the word.
Jonathan Demme used the same visual metaphor in Silence of the Lambs: Foster walks around blind in the basement, we can see her – but she can’t see us, the voyeur threat lurking in the corner.
When you have a hero who is clear and visible, when you can understand their actions in every scene and stand behind them, they immediately feel solid because you can feel the edges of their soul.
Sicario may be about the drug cartels in Mexico and the dark ops that go along with fighting an escalating political war steeped in corruption, but it’s really about Kate Macer’s soul.
It is Silence of the Lambs, only Hannibal is the world around us and Macer’s spirit is Clarice Starling, a little bird ready to be pounced upon, played with, and consumed piece by piece – or perhaps just drowned in the water bowl.
Blunt plays it all with pluck, and the rest of the cast form a fine parade of roosters, forever strutting their man-stuff, looking to get a rise from the fresh hen.
Brolin has now perfected the art of playing a likable prick, which makes him the perfect symbol of American foreign policy. But it’s Benicio Del Toro, who stretches his black wings and glides into the abyss playing the shadow side of Macer’s moral light, who makes the biggest impact.
His character remains a dark blur while Blunt’s stays crisp, allowing the two performances to work in tandem as foreground and background, personal drama and political tragedy in the same frame.
It’s nothing short of gorgeous filmmaking in the service of a truly urgent human emergency. The fact that it’s also highly entertaining is a testament to Villeneuve’s skills and the cast’s talent, as well as an uncomfortable indictment of where we are in this new wasteland of genre, where violence is too big to be packaged, and has to be swallowed whole.