Sicario

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro

Words: J. Wood

‘In Mexico, Sicario means Hitman’

The above quote has been plastered all across the marketing for Denis Villeneuve’s follow up to Prisoners/ Enemy (depending upon which territory you are in), and even appears as part of the opening frames, in which Villeneuve does an incredibly vague job of setting the scene.  Even with this information you go into the film somewhat in the dark, unaware what the film is actually about, or whom the Sicario of the title is, and the film benefits a lot from this.

Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, an FBI kidnap specialist whose knack for getting the job done sees her catapulted into bigger things, and much darker things.  Recruited by Josh Brolin’s brash yet secretive agent and thrust into an unholy trinity also involving Benicio Del Toro’s morally ambiguous Alejandro, essentially the immovable force of Kate’s morality meeting the immovable object of Brolin’s character’s realism, while the phantom like Alejandro feeds upon the chaos unfolding while never truly unveiling his own agenda.  What starts off as an operation sold to Kate as a chance to get the cartels responsible for unnatural acts of violence, turns into something so much more dangerous and destructive, in a very Nietzschen way, and to describe the plot any further would be to do the film a huge disservice.

The film is ostensibly a thriller but plays out more like Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness as the narrative slowly meanders its way into the heart of its quarry, the US war on the cartels, and in this respect the film is more a drama, with moments of extreme and near unprecedented action and violence punctuating it but make no mistake, this is an edge of your seat thriller if ever there was one.  I have seen, and understand comparisons made between this and Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, but while that film had a clear aim set out from the very start, this is a film shrouded in mystery, where the villains remain faceless entities for as long as is narratively possible, while the lines between good and evil are even further blurred.

It is all well and good to consider this film great from a narrative front, which it is, but the high technical standards to which this narrative is executed raise the bar somewhat and make this a clear frontrunner for the very best film of the year. Opening with a moment that shocks you into attention, before very cleverly bringing out from the nastiness in a hitherto unseen horror metaphor that works surprisingly well, the talky moments from then on in are perfectly punctuated by the relatively brief moments of action that if anything drive the plot more than the dialogue manages to.  Johann Johannsson’s score is fairly minimalistic yet at the same time adds the perfect atmosphere to convey the dangerous unknown into which the film, and its protagonist are stepping.

This feels to be a perfect juncture at which to discuss the contribution to this film of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, which is indeed enormous.  Looking back at his career he really has pushed the boundaries of cinematography in a way that few will, and alongside Emmanuel Lubezki and Robert Elswit really is one of the finest D.Ps working today.  This is a man who has been nominated for, and lost Oscars for such films as Fargo, True Grit, No Country For Old Men, The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford and Skyfall, yet for me this is his greatest achievement.  From great sweeping vistas of the Texan and Mexico scrublands, to a car sequence in Juarez in which he somehow puts his camera right into the heart of the action, capturing both the stillness yet the danger of the moment, as a border-crossing traffic jam turns into a tense outlet of life or death instincts, with Deakins using his camera almost as the Hall of Mirrors scene in The Man With The Golden Gun, expertly misdirecting the audience as to where the danger is coming from.  Later on in the film he brings great invention to the film’s one out and out action scene, filmed predominantly through the filters of night vision and thermal imaging, while one scene that sees soldiers preparing for action, just their silhouettes visible against the vivid late dusk of the desert setting is quite possibly the finest single shot I have ever seen on screen.

In few films would performances such as those given by the leading triptych here feel somewhat inferior to everything else going on but that is a testament to the power of the film’s script and direction rather than a slight on three very good actors.  As the audience’s entry into the film Blunt quite possibly had the hardest job, to essentially be the character calling out all the dangers of the approach taken by others, and being the moral spine of an otherwise immoral or amoral film.  Blunt’s steely determination marries well with the aspect of a character who is way out of her depth, and acts alongside Edge Of Tomorrow in touting her as a possible action star.  Josh Brolin is surprisingly the lead who has the most trouble with the material, his character’s secretiveness proving a disadvantage as he fails to make the desired impact.  It is however Benicio Del Toro who steals the film rather wonderfully as Alejandro.  Right from his first appearance he constantly reminds you that he used to be an actor of great power with an eerie sense of danger, something he has lacked for some years now.  The character is less a coiled spring than a snake in the grass, cold, calculating, inscrutable and unpredictable, making the performance all the more chilling.

Sicario is a film that takes a wonderfully thoughtful look at its subject, and those involved in its subject.  The film is very matter of fact about all this, as I am sure the closing scenes will display.  This is not a typical film in which the heroes overcome all evil by the closing credits, rather one where the protagonists barely make a drop in the ocean, and even that drop is questionable.  I was stunned by the craftsmanship shown on Sicario, stunned at how cold and calculating it was and how little it flinched at the harsh realities of the subject.  As one character remarks ‘you are not a wolf, and this is the land of wolves now’, I cannot remember many Hollywood movies ending on such bleak notes.

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