“Nothing will make sense to your American ears. And you will doubt everything that we do. But in the end, you will understand.”
These haunting words hover over everything that transpires in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. The US/Mexico border and the issues surrounding illegal immigration and the influx of drugs and drug cartels in the region is not just captivating news television, it seems to be rife with material suited for compelling, dark drama. One of the better, underrated shows of the last few years was an adaptation of a European drama, FX’s The Bridge, which told a detective story on both sides of the El Paso-Juarez line. It was good, but only lasted two seasons and never approached the heights that Sicario achieves. Sicario is an unnerving, unflinching look at the drug war, stripping away the ideals of Emily Blunt’s lead character and showing what lines may be needed to crossed to make a difference in this escalating war.
Kate Macer (Blunt) is an F.B.I. agent working in Arizona who has been conducting kidnap response raids on drug cartels making headway across the border into the U.S. After one particularly gruesome, costly, and eye-opening raid, she volunteers for a inter-agency task force headed by a mysterious Defense Department advisor, Matt Graver (Josh Brolin). Graver has an even more mysterious partner in Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro), a former Mexican lawyer, as part of the task force. Kate, along with her F.B.I. partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), are soon dropped into an unfamiliar world of taking the fight to the drug cartels, with questionable tactics and objectives as Matt and Alejandro’s plan and purpose are eventually revealed to them.
I’ve been a fan of director Villeneuve’s work to date. I was impressed to varying degrees with Incendies, Prisoners, and Enemy. Sicario feels like a significant step forward. It tells a complex story. There is nothing simple about the war on drugs, illegal immigration, or border control, but Villeneuve and writer Taylor Sheridan do not shy away from this complexity. It could be easy to lose your way in the complexity and make a film that is either too big and sprawling or too small to effectively tell its story in this setting and present the drug war in this area to the audience in a way that is accessible. The film strikes the proper balance. It conveys the immensity of the problem that Kate and her bosses are facing and how it feels like a losing battle. It is murky, as Kate and Reggie are being kept in the dark about certain aspects of what is going on, but it is never opaque or obtuse. Villeneuve brings a deliberate pacing to the film, building tension that is sporadically released, like the border bridge scene after leaving Juarez, where it is expected that the cartel will make a move on their convoy. It’s also telling that the drugs of the drug war are hardly even seen. The focus is not on the drugs but on the war part of the war on drugs.
As an F.B.I. agent, Kate is idealistic and honest. At the beginning of the film, after a drug bust that did not yield the results they had expected, she is asked by someone what they should tell their boss, and she says, simply, “The truth.” She volunteers for the task force because she is promised that it will result in getting the men that are ultimately behind what happened at the drug bust. Volunteering for this task force is the first step away from doing things by the book, something that makes her uncomfortable, but happens more and more frequently as the film progresses. When she goes to her boss with her concerns he informs her that these decisions have been made by people far away, higher up, and elected (not appointed) to their positions. The boundaries they are used to operating in have expanded and procedure has been thrown out the window. It all lends a wonderful tension and mounting dread to the film that culminates in a truly dark, unsettling conclusion.
The production quality really enhances the tone of the film as well. Roger Deakins is the cinematographer and his visuals are just as amazing here as they are in No Country For Old Men and any other number of films he has received a nomination for. There may be no one who is better at shooting the desert with a camera. Coupled with the outstanding cinematography is an excellent score by Johan Johannsson. The combination of the cinematography and score work together in one scene, as the crew is about to enter into Juarez for an extraction of a highly valued target, that makes it feel like a descent into Hell.
The three main leads give great performances. Brolin comes across a cocksure government spook who thinks he can do anything he wants; slightly arrogant, but also knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows the bigger picture, he has the objective, and Kate ends up being an important piece that he needs to see things through in his attempt to “dramatically overeat.” The two standouts, though, are Blunt and Del Toro. Blunt is perfect for the role, a woman who can effectively pull of the role of a tough female character infiltrating a testosterone-filled, all-boys club environment. Her toughness, tied to her moral certainty, is slowly peeled away and she ends up being almost completely exposed and undone by the end, her moral compass unwillingly tossed into the trash. Early on, after a shower, she looks in her foggy bathroom mirror, cleans the mirror, but her reflection from our vantage point is still clouded. She is our entry point into this muddy, compromised world that they’re operating in. And there is a sense of futility to her attempts to do the right thing. Del Toro is a quiet presence, almost lurking in the shadows like a ghost until being given the chance to jump to the foreground at the end of the film. His character doesn’t say much, and his back story is mysterious, though it is slowly brought into focus.
Sicario is one of my favorite films of the year. Not everything works (there is a side plot involving a Mexican policeman that doesn’t add much to the story), but it is so effective in setting a mood, creating an atmosphere, and it follows through on going to some places that most American films would shy away from. It pulls no punches. It is exactly the kind of crime thriller that I love. I believe it shares some DNA with Se7en, Training Day, and No Country For Old Men. When the credits finally role, Alejandro’s words about understanding by the end begin to make sense. It is not the kind of understanding that Kate expected when she volunteered. It’s an understanding of what is out there, and what people have decided must be done to stem the tide, and how much of your soul must be sacrificed to get the job done.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars