Denis Villeneuve’s latest feature sees Emily Blunt playing idealistic FBI agent Kate Mercer. Having garnered attention for her work in a number of house raids in Arizona, Mercer is invited into a different circle – a combined agency task force looking to make a serious impact in the war on drugs, specifically targeting the area surrounding the US / Mexico border. Scarred by some recent discoveries (the raid which very effectively opens the picture), Mercer volunteers. Sicario then follows her plunge down a rabbit hole of compromised ethics and wandering jurisdiction.
And follow her we do. Blunt’s Mercer is the audience’s proxy on this; the vehicle for our ride-along. So we are guided to react as she does. We are cautious of enthusiastic task force leader Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, happily continuing to be one of the best third-billed men in Hollywood) for whom major high-risk operations constitute a ‘good day’, and we’re deeply suspicious of the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a quiet, serious figure of unspecified design (but clearly CIA… right?).
Having drawn significant commercial success with murky vigilante justice drama Prisoners two years ago, Sicario sees Villeneuve concertedly trying to reconnect with that same audience following his more esoteric and personal project Enemy; a better film which slipped between cinema screens earlier this year with barely a notice. Sicario sees Villeneuve working again with best-in-the-biz cinematographer Roger Deakins. Together they have fashioned one of the best looking films of the year, and perhaps the first major feature to be openly influenced by Cary Joji Fukunaga’s stylistic template for HBO’s True Detective.
When it’s not punishing you with expertly wound scenes of tactical tension, Sicario is most impressive when it focuses on establishing a sense of environmental realism. In simple words, a great deal of time is spent giving the landscape this story takes place in a sense of malevolence. Combining sweeping aerial photography with Jóhan Jóhannson’s terrifying, oppressive score, Villeneuve impresses a sense of foreboding on cityscapes and desert brush alike. An early shot looking straight down on the Mexican mountains could be an outtake from Ridley Scott’s The Martian, so alien and untrustworthy are the landscape’s sinuous contours.
Taylor Sheridan’s script prioritises journeys over destinations. A lot of Sicario takes place in transit. This gives the film a great sense of momentum, especially in its first hour (which, if we were judging the film on solely, by the way, would earn it a cold, hard 5/5). This reaches a nerve-shredding apex during a mission to extract a cartel informant from the city of Juarez. You will likely never have found a traffic jam so dramatic or uncomfortable. The positions of vehicles in a bottlenecked flow of traffic being the difference between mortal danger and relative safety.
Sicario keeps things tense whenever Mercer is the film’s questioning heart, but the second hour sees her lose her grip on the story as it becomes more and more evident that her role is mere witness. While this allows Del Toro to step up to the plate with some of his most significant work of recent years as Alejandro, it does feel as though the film mutates into a different beast. The second hour is bolstered by a gripping sequence depicted wholly in night vision and heat-seeking thermal imaging. It’s the closest cinema has gotten to capturing the intensity of first-person video gaming, and is another feather in Villeneuve’s cap. But one can’t help getting the sense that for all it’s technical prowess, there’s something significant missing from Sicario by this point.
For one thing, the field of vision is particularly narrow for a film spotlighting the drug trade in this region. So much so that it barely feels as though it addresses the problem at all, and is in fact far more interested in reminding us that covert ops are moral minefields (duh). Nothing new is brought to the table. Granted, Sicario is near-perfect in other ways. If you want the immediacy of high tension in cinema, this is the best place you’ll get it this year. Technically, it’s flawless. But there’s a nagging sense of loss elsewhere. A series of scenes designed to manipulate our feelings toward a cartel henchman, for instance, simply fail to ignite at their evident crescendo.
The film wears a knotted brow at all times, save for the odd dash of jocular machismo which is usually applied to offset onscreen brutality. So while the subject matter and stony-faced pragmatism strongly recalls Cormac McCarthy’s forays into this arena with No Country For Old Men and The Counsellor, the film that Sicario most commonly rekindles is Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. It’s a shame, however, that Emily Blunt’s Mercer recedes in the film as much as she does, becoming, essentially, a victim. Comparing her to Jessica Chastain’s firebrand Maya is redundant. Evidently the war on terror and the war on drugs are being approached from very different perspectives. As far as the war on drugs is concerned, the most optimistic approach appears to be trying to decide how to lose best. Both films end on one of their central characters weeping, but arrive at these moments from different ends of the emotional spectrum.
Sicario is one of the best films you can currently find at your local multiplex, and I encourage readers to go and see it, but keep in mind that the movie’s visceral thrills are fleeting and built upon uneasily shifting sand.