"Nothing will make sense to your American ears. But in the end you will understand."
The war on drugs is hardly a topic that has yet to be explored. It is not an easy topic to cover and as a result most of the work is handled by the best filmmakers in the business like Steven Soderbergh and as a result of there are a few very good films about the subject such as ‘Traffic’. This means this if you want to make a movie that can stand against them as a modern and morally ambiguous thriller, you have to hire the best, welcome Denis Villeneuve.Following a counterstrike mission for the FBI, Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) stumbles upon the trail of a drug cartel. She is recruited by two advisors from the Department of Defence (Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro) and accompanies them to the Mexican border to draw out the cartel’s major players. But she now finds herself at the front of the ethically distorted war on drugs.
‘Sicario’ opens with perhaps one of the most visceral and brutal raids in recent cinema (not including movies that are actually called ‘The Raid’). Macer is tracking down a kidnapper, charges through the wall of his house with a truck, enters under shotgun fire and finds herself inside a literal house of horrors belonging to a kidnapper that is full of plastic wrapped corpses and other atrocities, to such an extent when I actually had to ask myself if I was about to watch a horror movie or not. The pace and tension are drawn out to unprecedented levels and the harshness of the crime’s portrayal only raises the tautness of the film’s plot even further.
That opening scene sets the tone for ‘Sicario’ (which incidentally is Spanish slang for hitman), it puts all the cards on the table and is basically a snapshot of what you are about to witness. There are numerous scenes of mastery peppered throughout the film. The standout has to be one moment where Macer and her team is stuck in a traffic jam and are surrounded by cars, any one of which may contain a number of cartel agents about the take them out. This scene stands as a near perfect example of how to create tension, thanks in no little part to cinematographer Roger Deakins who even uses the tinted car windows as a way to highlight the suspense of the situation. Then the editing technique speaks for itself as time and time again you’re aware of the constant danger and of course Villeneuve’s directing just takes it even further.
By setting the film right on the border the film firmly establishes a metaphor for crossing both geographical and moral borders. It’s truthful about the ethical price of desperate methods and manages to turn the concepts of right and wrong on their head. We are allowed to see all of this through Emily Blunt, she is our viewpoint to this pitiless world and manages to convey a sense of bewilderment to this world due to the mysterious nature of her mission. But at the same time there is a competence and leading nature to her character, she acts as a driving force as well as a vehicle.
Josh Brolin is also excellent but as far as Del Toro goes, he steals every single scene he is in. There is a sheer magnetic quality to his performance and to the true motives of his character and the loyalties he holds that impressed me, repulsed me and kept me guessing for as long as it needed to.
If I do have a criticism of ‘Sicario’ (though rest assured they are few and far) it’s that it lacks a deeper meaning. The script itself seems to be fairly standard and is only elevated to such magnificent heights by the talent of the executioners. As well as this there are some slow moments that drag a little and it seems to lack a central protagonist. One could argue that this is to emphasise Macer’s confusion over where she stands in this world and what role she plays, but I’m not quote convinced.
Any faults are knitpicking. ‘Sicario’ is a spectacularly brutal, blurred and edgy thriller with stunning visuals, direction and performances to elevate it.