Director Denis Villenueve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have received monumental critical success for 2013’s realistically nightmarish Prisoners and 2014’s menacingly impenetrable Enemy, and the team are beckoned back once more for Sicario, one of Villenueve’s more accessible films, but no less intense. The film kicks off straight at the deep end, and barely even surfaces as the end credits roll. It’s that kind of film – consistently gripping, politically weighty, tension wonderfully palpable.
With the haunting thrums of Johann Johannsson’s masterful score, Sicario lurches into life; Kate Macer an FBI agent played with scintillating vulnerability by Emily Blunt, leads a SWAT mission to infiltrate a house along the USA-Mexico border with links to a drug cartel. Not everything goes to plan, and the horrifying sight of a mass of rotting bodies is uncovered, provided as the lingering image that launches Sicario’s mature, if well-worn plot. Macer is recruited into a combative border control task force, supposedly attempting to diminish a drug cartel behind the film’s shocking opener. From there, she meets the charismatic, sandal-wearing operation leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his shady, threatening partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro). The operatives immediately encounter danger during an astonishing bridge crossing sequence, the brimming intensity producing one of the best scenes of the year.
If the film had kept up this ferocious potency, we’d be looking at a 5-star film. Unfortunately, Taylor Sheridan’s script suffers from a dramatic lull in its second act – the film picks up again during a night-time mineshaft raid, but by then, the damage is done, the tension hasn’t been maintained. A part of the problem is that the script’s subject matter is inherently tired, and so Sheridan’s attempt to deviate and provide a fresh take on the matter has sacrificed Sicario’s clearly confused focus point. The third-act switch from Blunt’s Kate Macer to Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick is brave but jarring; instead of a smooth transition, we are thrusted into his life with little prior development of his character, and so as an audience we aren’t invested in his travails, despite his actions being crucial to the plot’s overarching themes. There is also a noticeable emphasis placed on a Mexican police officer named Silvio (Maximiliano Hernandez) and his family, which serves as a well-intended microcosm for Mexico as a whole that’s lost in the story’s main narrative. It deserves it’s place in the film, but is integrated in a way that gives it the impression of seeming irrelevant.
Denis Villenueve’s direction competently masks Sicario’s wayward plot, however. His visual chemistry and nous for generating mood is made clear in his partnership with Roger Deakins, who brings the film’s central themes and tones to life: a haunting aerial shot of Mexico that establishes the residences’ terrifying beauty, a mesmerising sunset long-take that portrays the operatives as literally disappearing into the ground, and a powerful wide shot of a family at their kitchen table all help to muster up Sicario’s terrific energy and strikingly dark attitude.
Yet the film would still fall apart without its three central performances – Emily Blunt’s aforementioned vulnerability is nuanced and displays a sense of hopelessness that is omnipresent throughout the film’s running time. Josh Brolin is physically imposing and uses charismatic quirkiness to juxtapose his fraudulent motivations, and Benicio del Toro is satisfyingly cold and calculated, his strive for revenge a far cry from his sleepy, charming introduction.
Only a competent rather than excelling script hinders Sicario’s potency. It’s shot wonderfully, acted effectively and is directed in a way that portrays its mature themes without detracting from their sociopolitical heft. Villenueve has followed up his recent success with another scorcher of a film.