Denis Villeneuve is a filmmaker I’ve had a personal attachment to for a few years now. Prisoners was my favorite film of 2013, and I have an immense love for the elusiveness of last year’s Enemy. I’ve gone back watched all his previous worked, and loved each film. I was probably always going to love this film all along. But when a film exceeds the love you have prepared for it, that’s when you know this filmmaker has created something special. Again. Villeneuve has quietly become one of the most authentic, ambitious and creative filmmakers working in the studio system over the past couple of years. Rather than the studios using him to fit their brand, he’s using them to crank out the work of an auteur on a yearly basis (When Blade Runner 2 is released in 2017, he’ll have had a new movie out for 5 consecutive years). Myself and the friend I saw Sicario with turned to each other as the credits rolled in agreement that we had most likely just seen our favorite film of the year.
The plot follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), a young FBI agent involved in kidnapping extraction who, following a mission that uncovers dozens of dead bodies and kills two officers, is enlisted into an elected government task force to help take down a cartel kingpin and contribute to the escalating drug war along the U.S.-Mexico border. Leading the unit is shady Department of Justice figure Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the mysterious and dangerous Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose role and motives in this mission are elusive.
Emily Blunt is a captivating combination of vulnerability and steeliness. Kate is by the books in her work, and she’s now found herself in something only a few declarations short of an all-out war. She’s no deer in the headlights, but she is out of her element, and Blunt wears that tension on her demeanor convincingly. As the film goes on, she starts to deteriorate mentally, and manifests it in a physical performance. When Matt and Alejandro give instructions and clarifications to Kate, they are really giving them to the audience. She’s our introduction to all this, and Blunt makes compelling work of it. Brolin plays Matt somewhere between “hoo-rah” and calculative manipulation. For him this is all a good hangout with his buds, and some scenes find subtle comedy in this. Matt has been around this track before and knows what play to make at each turn. He knows when to be charming and when to be menacing in order to get what he wants. It’s a duality that Brolin makes convincing and fear-inducing.
Benicio Del Toro is magnetic as Alejandro. There’s a lot he’s holding back in each interaction, his choices in each scene informed by a past trauma that is only referenced for most of the film. You do find out what it is later on, but you didn’t need to know specifics beforehand to trust the performance though, as Del Toro is plenty communicative in how he wears the baggage of the past trauma. Alejandro is always calm in an unsettling manner, as dangerous as he is trusting. His motives for being on this mission stay hidden for much of the film, him deflecting questions from Kate with grunts or vague answers like “I go where they send me.” or “Nothing you hear will make sense to your American ears.” The dynamic between Kate and Alejandro oscillates between trust and distrust, and the pair sells it honestly, creating much tension for the film in the process. There’s been talk about a proposed sequel/spin-off just following Alejandro, and Del Toro’s performance is certainly great enough that I’d follow him for another 2 hours. Villeneuve fills out the rest of the cast with authentic work from a protective Daniel Kaluuya, an authoritative Victor Garber, a tragic Maximiliano Hernández and a menacing Jon Bernthal.
Jóhann Jóhannson’s score has an understated, almost funereally horrifying quality to it that quietly amps up the tension in each scene. Consider the opening as drums, barely audible at first, play over the opening shots. You lean in, trying to decipher if you’re hearing things or not, and when it becomes clear a score is playing, you’re still leaning in because of how gripping it all instantly is. The score gives the feeling of being dropped down a dark and murky pit, and it’s thematically appropriate to the arc of Kate. Whether it’s the pulsating bass drums, the wailing horns or the staccato strings, the score gives an immense feeling of terror without ever shouting it. It underlays each scene with multiple layers of tension. It’s a sparingly used score, but is immensely effective.
Roger Deakins is a master of his craft and that’s all that really needs to be said. When he shoots a film, it’s always one of the best-shot films of the year. Sicario is no different, offering up some of his best work both in thematics and naturalism, reminiscent of his work on both No Country for Old Men and, of course, Prisoners. Dread and tension coat each frame, you believe that danger is always possible no matter the setting. One shot leading into the climax finds the team heading out of frame under a receding sunset. One by one they go into darkness, a wondrous literalization of the murky descent of morality these characters are descending.
The aerial shots are something to behold, heightening the deserts and landscapes of Arizona (although it should be noted those scenes were shot in New Mexico) and Mexico into something of a nightmarish otherworld. The city of Juárez is shot like a descent into hell. Not a few blocks into the city and they pass a series of decapitated bodies hanging from an overpass, and gunshots in the distant are constant and accent the rising fear of the sequence. It should be noted that this depiction doesn’t feel dismissive of the people living there as a whole, but is depicted as such to create a heightened reality of fear and danger. It’s the ecstatic truth at play, making it more cinematic. The film heightens these nightmarish aspects in order to further literalize the pit of morality Kate is heading down, as well as to pull the audience into her viewpoint of fear in order to later point out the backwards differences between how an American audience perceives foreign death and violence and how those native to it perceive it.
Deakins and Villeneuve make great use of whatever setting they’re given. The climax takes place in a tunnel, and the pair keep the shots tight to heighten the claustrophobia of the sequence, as well as filming much of it in night-vision cameras to heighten the mystery and danger of the sequence. Also consider the sequence when the team mounts up in a squad of cars to go across the border, snatch up a high ranking cartel member, and bring him to American soil to interrogate. Deakins and Villeneuve keep much of their shots inside the car with these characters to better heighten the sense of escalating tension and disorientation with the audience. It’s a masterfully shot sequence as a spotter vehicle appears like a serial killer darting through a dark hallway in the background, as the vehicle appears in the street perpendicular to them, only catching glimpses of it at crossroads. Later they get stopped in a traffic jam just before the border and spot two vehicles of gunmen in lanes near them. Deakins and Villeneuve milk all the tension they can in this buildup with extended takes, making the anxiety almost unbearable. When the release comes, the violence at hand is appropriately tough to watch. It should be noted that there is quite a lot of death and violence in this film, but the loss of life is always felt. Villeneuve is a responsible enough filmmaker to know that as these characters exact violent notions of “revenge” and “justice”, they are only digging themselves further down a murky pit. He’s not using violence in this film to titillate, but to explore these characters. Even when somebody who deserves horrible violence gets it in the climax, it’s incredibly tough to watch.
The script by Taylor Sheridan is an airtight one that knows when to reveal key information to its audience. It makes grand political statements about the war on drugs that somehow don’t feel overtly hammered, but naturally engrained into the structure of the film. Even at the climax a villain says something along the lines of “They (America) are just as bad as me.”, a stereotypical line of villainy that would normally draw eye rolls, but works here as the film has centered itself around that notion. The film is about how we regard death and violence in our country versus how we regard death and violence in another. After the raid at the beginning, a rigged explosive kills two officers and it’s all over the news. A news reporter recounts the events, describing them as horrific, when suddenly he’s cut off as Villeneuve cuts to Kate watching the report, now muted as it’s through a glass window seperation. When they have the shootout at the border, multiple soldiers comment that, “It won’t even make the El Paso news.” In both cases, she’s cut off from how the violence is perceived by others.
The final scene is perfect, and encapsulates the theme of how we perceive violence in America versus violence abroad. Without giving away too much, we spend the final moments of the film not following Kate, Matt or Alejandro, but a tertiary character who had popped up every so often beforehand. A children’s soccer game is taking place in Juárez, when suddenly gunshots ring out in the distance. The game stops and everybody looks in the direction the sounds came from with solemnity. The shots subside, and the game continues. We have to go over the border to experience this level of violence and are scarred by it, but for them it’s everyday and taken as a fact of life. That’s the real border between America and Mexico that Villeneuve centers his film around.