Film Review: Sicario (dir by Denis Villeneuve)


If you told me that I had to describe the new film Sicario in just one word, that word would be “overwhelming.”

And then I’d get really mad at you for making me sum up my feelings about Sicario in only one word.  Sicario is a great film, one of the best of the year so far.  It’s a film that works as both an exciting thriller and an examination of the grim reality of the Mexican Drug War.  It’s a film that may anger you and it certainly won’t leave you feeling very optimistic as far as the endless, corrupt, and unwinnable war on drugs is concerned.  And, ultimately, it is a very overwhelming viewing experience, one that quite literally left me breathless.

And what’s frustrating is that I really can’t tell you as much about Sicario as I might want to.  Sicario is a film about secrets and, if I reveal even one secret, I risk messing up the experience of watching the film for you.  And that’s something that I would never want to do because Sicario is a film that deserves and needs to be seen and experienced.  And this is a film that you should go into with as little advanced knowledge as possible.

So, I’m going to ask you trust me here.  I’m going to ask you to believe me when I tell you that Sicario is a great film but that I can’t tell you the exact reasons why.  It’s a film that comes at you disguised as being a typical action film and then it sets about defying every single expectation that you might have.  I have been so conditioned by watching so many action films that I constantly found myself assuming that I knew what would happen next.  And, nearly every time, Sicario proved me wrong.

Here’s what I can tell you.  Kate Marcer (Emily Blunt) is a FBI agent who, after discovering an Arizona house that is full of dead bodies, is assigned to a joint task force that has been tasked with taking down a Mexican drug lord.  Kate finds herself working for Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who works for a government agency that he consistently refuses to name.  Idealistic and naive, Kate is shocked by Graver’s ruthless methods and confused as to why she’s even been assigned to work with him.  (Kate continually complains that Graver’s operation seems to have no purpose and that his methods are often illegal.  Graver usually just smirks in response.)  Also working with Graver is the enigmatic Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a Columbian lawyer who says few words and is surprisingly good with a gun.

Up until the film’s final 30 minutes, we see nearly the entire story through Kate’s eyes.  And, much like Kate, we spend much of the film confused.  We struggle to figure out just what exactly it is that Graver is trying to accomplish and just how exactly Alejandro fits into his plans.  Emily Blunt gives a great performance as Kate but, at the same time, the film cleverly subverts our expectations about what we expect to happen with her character.  After all, we’ve seen Looper.  We’ve seen Edge of Tomorrow.  And when Sicario begins, we have every reason to expect that this is going to be another film where Emily Blunt is going to kick everyone’s ass.  And, make no doubt about it — Emily Blunt does get to kick some ass in this film but this film suggests that, in the end, it doesn’t matter if you kick everyone’s ass.  Certain things just cannot be changed.

And then there’s Josh Brolin, who is wonderfully glib as Matt Graver.  You distrust him as soon as he appears on-screen but he still remains a compelling enigma.  But, ultimately, this film belongs to Benicio Del Toro.  If there was any doubt that Del Toro is one of the greatest actors working right now, Sicario should dispel it.  When we first meet Alejandro, he seems like he’s just a burned out shell of a man.  We look at him and we assume certain things about his character and we think we know exactly what is going to happen with him.  At first, Del Toro gives such a quiet and introverted performance that it’s almost easy to forget about him.  But then, as Sicario reaches its violent and thought-provoking conclusion, Del Toro suddenly steps forward and take over the entire film.  Even after we learn his big secret, Alejandro (and Del Toro) continues to surprise us.  It’s a great performance and it will be a great injustice if Del Toro is not, at the very least, nominated for an Academy Award.

Along with Del Toro, the other great stars of the film are cinematographer Roger Deakins and the director, Denis Villeneuve.  Villeneuve may not be a household name but he’s one of the best directors working today.  He’s a filmmaker who can use the conventions of genre (the action genre in this film, the mystery genre in Prisoners) to tell a story about how people are living now and why things are the way that they are.  (In many ways, Denis Villeneuve is Steven Soderbergh without all the pretentious affectations.)  Villeneuve’s skill as a director is on full, thrilling display in four separate set pieces, each of which is full of heart-pounding tension and sudden violence.  As for Roger Deakins, he captures images of Mexico and the south Texas that feel almost alien in their ominous beauty.

Sicario is one of the best films of the year.  See it!

44 responses to “Film Review: Sicario (dir by Denis Villeneuve)

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