I think we have reached a point where we can watch a movie and confidently say “That is a Denis Villeneuve film”. The French-Canadian filmmaker can be defined as someone not afraid to claw deep under the surface of difficult subject matter. He also spares his audience no amount of discomfort or unease when telling his stories. His films are incredibly cinematic and are recognized by both their narrative and visual intensity. Several films have helped reveal his uniquenesses, but his new film “Sicario” is his best yet.
Every one of Villeneuve’s characteristics mentioned above are present in “Sicario”, a border thriller that stings with relevancy. Emily Blunt is superb playing Kate Macer, an FBI field agent specializing in hostage rescue. The film opens with a gripping sequence featuring Kate leading a raid on an Arizona housing division. Her actions catch the attention of her superiors who then ask her to join a task force led by Department of Defense ‘advisor’ Matt Graver (played with amusing cockiness by Josh Brolin). The mission is to strike back at the drug cartels responsible for a number of brutal killings. Anxious to finally make a significant difference, Kate agrees to join Graver’s team.
Also on the team is the mysterious and shadowy Alejandro played with unflinching precision by Benicio del Toro. Back in 2000 he won the Supporting Actor Oscar for “Traffic”, but this stellar performance rises above his past work. His Alejandro is impenetrable – a walking contrast of information and emotion. The vast majority of the film is shown through Kate’s perspective. Like her, we struggle to figure out Alejandro, Graver, and the entire mission for that matter. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan meticulously feeds us small bits of information never allowing us the feeling of being fully informed.
“Sicario” is also strengthened by the sting of its moral ambiguity. There is no easy way to navigate the morality of what we see on screen. Kate struggles with it and Villeneuve forces his audience to struggle with it too. It casts a bright light on the drug war, border violence, and government policy painting each as murkier and far more complex than we normally hear through political talking points. It operates under the idea that we have lost the drug war. Now it’s about control and making sure it doesn’t consume us. But does that mean compromising our moral conscience and turning what we known to be ‘right and wrong’ into a much more gray area? These questions hit Kate like a crashing wave.
And there is no way to talk about this movie without mentioning its phenomenal presentation. Villeneuve has perfectly matched the intensity of his story and subject matter with a visual rendering that is truly absorbing and stimulating. It will come as no surprise that Roger Deakins’ cinematography is magnificent. When will this man finally win the Oscar he deserves? His camerawork is key in making many of these scenes work. There are no vanity or prestige shots. They all have meaning. Deakins visually infuses so many scenes with tension and potency.
There is one particular sequence that may be my favorite of the year. Kate joins Graver’s team in a extradition mission to Juarez. They are to move across the border, pick up a high value target, and make it back. Deakins’ magic takes over the moment they leave the military base. Through his lens, Deakins reveals to us the boiling tension of the location and situation – the same tension that Kate is experiencing for the first time. It is also helped by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s simmering score – one of the year’s best. The entire sequence is cinema at its finest.
“Sicario” is a searing and provocative thriller – visceral and unflinching in its depiction of a situation with no easy answer. Denis Villeneuve and company expertly craft a cinematic experience grounded in relevancy and unwilling to sugar coat its subject matter. Villeneuve, Blunt, del Toro, Deakins, and Jóhannsson all deserve Oscar nominations and the film itself is among the year’s very best.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS