Review: Sicario

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The War on Terror may be the primary conflict for the United States in the 21st century by necessity, but another war has long preceded it. The War on Drugs has become ever present in American culture, partially from its depiction in the media, but also because it directly penetrates the U.S. border on a daily basis. Public and private parties of all ranks and backgrounds encompass this battlefield, from the dealer on the street and local law enforcement, to elected officials and kingpins who have amassed fortunes. The War on Drugs sees new casualties every week, and there is no real end in sight. The latest cinematic depiction of this battle is Sicario, a muscular yet visually precise thriller which may not offer any new insights, but offers a fairly compelling straight narrative of compromises and vengeance.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is one of the FBI’s most valued agents, the head of a task force that specializes in kidnapping and hostage recovery. Her latest victory brings her to an anonymous house in suburban Arizona, filled to the brim with bodies. This building is no longer an option for the cartel that once used it, but it is only the first step in bringing down the drug lord behind the operation. Kate is recruited by the Department of Defense to join a task force led by a man named Matt (Josh Brolin). Though he often cracks wise, Matt’s objective is deeply serious. His methods are unorthodox and he rarely talks straight, immediately giving Kate misgivings about her involvement. Further complicating their mission is the involvement of a man simply named Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), whose motivations are even more nebulous than Matt’s. On her first assignment with them, Kate believes they are flying to El Paso, when in reality they are on their way to cross the border into Juarez. From this point forward Kate finds herself in many moral and ethical quandaries, questioning whether the ends justify the means.

Denis Villeneuve is the director behind Sicario, and the film is a terrific showcase of his talents. Much like his other two English language films, Prisoners and Enemy, the film offers plenty of opportunities for surprise and suspense, often within the same scenes. Villeneuve milks the most out of this, particularly in the outstanding opening thirty minutes. The sequence in Juarez alone is simply one of the most tension filled set pieces of the year, leading to a memorably brutal finale. Unfortunately, the script from Taylor Scheridan falls into some easy cliches and familiar situations in its latter stages. There are certainly plenty of twists, but at its heart Sicario remains fairly simplistic. This isn’t necessarily a detraction because Villeneuve’s immaculate direction elevates the entire enterprise, but one wishes the story could kick into a higher gear and uncover something truly unsettling.

Emily Blunt is astute and confident as Kate, but as a protagonist she becomes increasingly passive as the situation around her escalates. She attempts to stand up for herself, but is disappointingly overwhelmed by individuals who are visibly more experienced than her. Brolin gives Matt some welcome sarcasm in dour situations, which gradually dissolves as desperation sets in. Best of all is Benicio del Toro, who certainly has some familiarity with films about the drug wars. His Alejandro is as cold and ruthless as they come, and while his own personal backstory may not feel particularly original, the character’s trajectory is quite satisfying.

So much of Villeneuve’s skill as a director stems from his focuses on both sides of the camera. His previous collaboration with Roger Deakins reaps even more rewards here. Despite his immense talents, Deakins is never one for showmanship and he keeps largely conservative here with regards to camera movement. The framing of shots is what maximizes the tension in many of the sequences, especially in contributing to a disturbing reveal in the raid on the Arizona house early in the film. Villeneuve also has a strong grasp on editing, not only within a given scene, but in transitions from one scene to the next. A particularly memorable cut jumps from a traumatic moment to a close up of Kate turning on her shower as she washes off the blood on her face. The final greatest asset to the film is Johan Johansson’s brooding score, placing heavy emphasis on low end strings, as if suggesting that the threat behind the drug cartels is a slumbering behemoth. Ultimately, even if Sicario has nothing new to say about the War on Drugs, it is still an impressively robust thriller, ambiguous enough to confirm that these battles, both internal and external, are far from resolved.

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~ by romancinema on September 19, 2015.

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