Denis Villeneuve has quickly established himself as one of the première directors of thrillers.
His 2013 domestic drama Prisoners was a surprising pulse-racer with a decidedly bleak edge. Villeneuve’s ability to build and sustain suspense has obvious Hitchcockian overtones, but is near stomach-turning in its psychological impact. That overwhelming sense of dread is taken to new heights in his latest film Sicario, a violent meditation on the never-ending drug war in Mexico. If you thought Prisoners was a rough sit, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Sicario’s opening moments set the tone immediately as idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leads a raid on a known Mexican cartel leader’s drug den in Arizona. They expect to find hostages or narcotics, but instead discover dozens of illegal immigrant bodies stuffed into walls and a bomb that takes out several members of Macer’s strike team. It’s an intense start to a film that consistently builds hopelessness into its framework and never lets the audience off the hook. The United States government is fighting a losing battle in the drug war, and Sicario is about the new and potentially dangerous measures that need to be taken to maintain balance in a world gone mad.
After the visceral prologue, Macer finds herself being asked to join a special task force that has been assembled to infiltrate and stir the pot using unconventional (and likely illegal) methods. Though Macer believes in the rule of law, her thirst for revenge and justice have her falling headfirst into the rabbit hole. Leading this task force is a slovenly operative short on answers and big on chaos named Matt Graver, gamely played by a smirking Josh Brolin. But even more intriguing is his secretive partner Alejandro (Benecio Del Toro), who Macer worries could be playing both sides of the fence. Del Toro is a silent, menacing figure for most of the film’s runtime and it’s not until quite late in the game that his true purpose is revealed. His finest moments come in the last 15 minutes and it becomes clear he may be the only moral answer in a world that has denounced any semblance of moral behavior. It’s an impressive turn for Del Toro, and the most memorable aspect of Sicario outside of the film’s hypnotic cinematography.
Director of Photography Roger Deakins is a visual wizard and his continued work with director Villeneuve is gritty, raw, and immaculate. Together, along with editor Joe Walker, they build sequences of suspense that will stop the heart. Sicario plays like one long, drawn-out covert nightmare, but there are beats in the story that ratchet up the tension to dizzying heights. A prisoner pick-up in Juarez, Mexico unfolds methodically with long tracking shots that feel like they are playing out in real time. And then there is a tunnel raid, featuring night vision and thermal first-person photography reminiscent of the Bin Laden compound infiltration in Zero Dark Thirty that gives that film a run for its money. Many of these moments end in quick bursts of violence that are starkly captured in bloody and unflinching closeups that leave the viewer horrorstruck. Sicario is being billed as an action thriller, which is somewhat misleading. There isn’t much action, but a whole lot of buildup. You aren’t going to leave the theater cheering for any hero and you most definitely aren’t going to get a happy ending.
For all the brilliant work on display, Sicario does have a near fatal flaw and it’s that its lead role is woefully underwritten. Macer is meant to serve as an audience surrogate, and much like her character, the audience is always two steps behind the unfolding narrative. That could have been compelling, but screenwriter Taylor Sheridan gives Blunt nothing to work with other than wanting to uphold the law. She has no personal relations outside of her partner Reggie and seemingly has little to no past as well. She is relegated to the background for much of the runtime and is used as a thesis statement. Blunt does her best to emote her way through the nothingness, but it’s difficult to care when she is a blank slate and not a functioning character.
Despite the misuse of Emily Blunt, Sicario is a stunning display of craft with many narrative surprises to uncover. Its hardnosed approach may be difficult for some to take, but its directorial vision is uncompromising and thoughtfully displayed. It may well be remembered as one of the year’s best. Next up for both Villeneuve and Deakins is the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner. Sicario should alieve any doubts in how that project will be handled. If nothing else, it will be a marvel to look at, much like its predecessor. Denis Villeneuve is a director to take notice of. His greatness is only just beginning.