There’s a point in Sicario, the latest film by director Denis Villeneuve, where Benicio Del Toro’s character Alejandro says, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything that we do, but in the end you will understand.” Sicario presents understanding, truly knowing something, not as a revelatory moment, but a gradual resignation to bitter reality. As a film, it is a jarring experience, yet nonetheless a must-see.
Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, a careerist specializing in busting drug-cartel safe houses. After a terrifying shootout in an Arizona suburb, Macer is recruited by the affable Matt (Josh Brolin) to take the fight to those “really responsible.” Soon, she’s thrust into jingoistic work alongside the military, Mexico’s federal police, and Alejandro, a former lawyer now working on the darkest fringes of the war on drugs.
The cast is superb. Blunt and Brolin are like two sides of the same coin: Blunt is the judicious, by-the-books cop, while Brolin’s role echoes his tongue-in-cheek portrayal of George Bush in Oliver Stone’s W. (2008), all the time scratching a darker surface. Del Toro, meanwhile, is right at home as the silent, mysterious loner, stealing most of the scenes that Brolin doesn’t run off with. The standout, however, is Daniel Kaluuya as Reggie, Macer’s diligent partner. Kaluuya brings much-needed humanity to this film, serving as Macer’s conscience and taking others to task for their shady actions. In the film’s brief moments of levity, Kaluuya is charming and genuinely funny, a welcome change of pace.
And that’s needed in something this bleak. The revelations and truths are few and far between, and any sense of accomplishment is conditional. In many ways, Sicario is a modern Apocalypse Now, only Kurtz is nowhere in sight; there are no easy answers, no clear targets, and what little there is gives no relief to those caught between warring factions.
Simultaneously, there is beauty in this harrowing vision. Villeneuve teams here with cinematographer Roger Deakins to paint a stunning and vivid portrait of Arizona and Mexico. The film is elegantly shot. There is an attention to detail, a sense of scale, and a clear focus uncommon in modern cinema. Deakins, best known for his work with the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes, brings cohesiveness to every image in this film; paired with Villeneuve’s eye, each frame becomes an understated portrait. There are stunning shots of Mexican landscape, but instead of long vistas, these are bird’s-eye views, adding to the observational focus of the film. The audience is almost a voyeur, peeling back the veneer of American jingoism to see the harsh truths beneath.
The script, however, does not quite stand up to the themes, images, and performances on display. This isn’t to say it’s bad; far from it, the good is excellent. The occasional line stumbles or falls flat, though the intent is always clear. Del Toro gets the worst of this. As Alejandro, his role as mysterious loner warrants a number of memorable lines. The problem is that it’s difficult to take him seriously when he’s spouting off vaguely mystical metaphors (“You’re asking me how a watch works; right now, just keep an eye on the time”). Similarly, Brolin’s swaggering act is able to sell most of his dialogue with ease, and one gets the sense that he’s ad-libbing a fair amount of it – a good decision, on his part, as when he’s required to reveal Alejandro’s mysterious past, it ends up sounding like the origin story of a comic-book villain.
Some might also take issue with the film’s conclusion. While the final shots are thought-provoking, the plot does not so much resolve as end abruptly. On the one hand, it is thematically suitable – with all that has been sacrificed, has anything truly been accomplished? – but on the other, what happens to the characters whose lives have been profoundly altered by what they’ve seen? For better or for worse, Villeneuve seems content to leave the audience with such questions.
In the end, Sicario remains a stark and uncompromising piece of art, showcasing a beautiful world populated with horrifying people. Sicario is not for the faint of heart, and deals with particularly heavy subjects, but is worth watching. Visually, it has immense respect for the audience, and is easily one of the most memorable films of the year. It might not be a comfortable experience, but it is a must-watch for any discerning cinephile.
Ben Filipkowski lives and breathes film, books, history, music, and TV, so it makes sense that he's an aspiring novelist. When he's not watching Seven Samurai for the seventeenth time (with commentary), he can be found rewriting the latest draft of his novel, or out exploring another side of Ottawa.