By Dan Cava
October 2, 2015
For the last fifteen years, Hollywood has been taking its most difficult discussions on the line between right and wrong to the line between the United States and Mexico. From Steven Soderbergh’s game-changer “Traffic” to the Coen Brothers’ pitch perfect adaption of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” to Vince Gilligan’s anti-hero phenomenon “Breaking Bad,” all of these films use the actual border as a place in which we can grapple with the existence of an invisible border. There’s something about the stew of drugs, money, geopolitics and humanity, boiled in the cauldron of an unbridled black market, heated by the relentless desert sun: No matter how it is prepared, no matter many good intentions we sprinkle into it, it always tastes of violence and death.
Like its cinematic predecessors, “Sicario” thrusts us into the moral malaise of the so-called war on drugs, daring us to pick a side while thrilling us with intricate detail, smart plotting, tense action set pieces, and a powerful sense of dread. “Sicario” follows FBI Agent Kate Macer’s (Emily Blunt) sudden assignment to an interagency narcotics task force. The goal is the location and capture of a notorious Juarez drug chief, although her immediate supervisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and Graver’s Department of Defense advisor Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) are less than forthcoming on the strategy. Director Denis Villeneuve skillfully keeps us close to Macer in every way, and her burgeoning understanding of the both the purpose and the plan is in perfect lockstep with that of the audience. To reveal too much of the story would be both a chore and a shame, but needless to say, this is one of those layered dramas where everything both is and is not as it seems.
Director Denis Villeneuve is no stranger to ambiguity. His two previous efforts, the kidnapping mystery “Prisoners” and the doppelgänger drama “Enemy” are both thick with moody uncertainty. Questions of right and wrong, of reality and fantasy, of perception and its limits, haunt and drive Villeneuve’s narratives, informing both his choice of material and his stylistic decisions. Working with master cinematographer Roger Deakins for the second time, Villeneuve’s hazy, steady camerawork gives “Sicario” a sense of implacable and irreversible momentum. Villeneuve finds brilliantly believable ways to obstructs and distorts our view of the action through shots of dense traffic, tight streets, night vision and thermal cameras. The limitations cause everything to take on a sense of elusiveness. How many mercenaries are in that car? Is that really a gun? Is that glowing heat signature or burst of gunfire one of us or one of them? The camera, like the story, hides as often as it reveals. Only the high, gliding shots of Mexican cities and terrain seem free from interruption, and yet we are so far away that we can be both see everything and make out nothing.
“Sicario” is not an action movie per se. It’s a ground-level military procedural punctuated by action set pieces. When the guns do come out, the movie crackles with enormous intensity. And yet, not unlike another recent manhunt movie “Zero Dark Thirty” (which coincidentally and pleasantly also bucks genre convention with an intelligent, red-haired, female protagonist), “Sicario” is as interested in the process as in the payoffs. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, most recognizable as an actor on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” pulls off the tricky balance of filling the movie with enough detail to make each step of the plan plausible while still keeping the endgame impenetrable. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s pulsing electronic score is omnipresent, a groan of machinery that is somehow always descending. Someone, it seems, is in control of all this, but it’s not Macer and sure as hell isn’t the audience. Like Macer, we are sent into the tunnel, literally and figuratively, both needing to see what’s in there and dreading what it might be.
If “Sicario” suffers at all, it is only by comparison to its slightly superior genre-mates and its relative lateness to the game. Josh Brolin’s dialogue was tighter in “No Country for Old Men” and Benicio del Toro hasn’t been totally trustworthy since the last time he intermingled with cartels in “Traffic” or Oliver Stone’s “Savages.” In the post-Cold War, post-Iraq War era, we all know by now not to trust anyone including ourselves, and we know that everyone in these films is going to be at least a little good and yet worse than we thought. Lines will be crossed, there are no clean getaways, and all of the other movie poster taglines. The moral idealism that a movie like “Sicario” is attempting to erode has long since been diminished by recent history and by recent movies on these events.
But don’t let the slight feeling of déjà vu dissuade you. “Sicario” is still a tough, tense, and troubling ride. Powered by a skillful set of players both behind and in front of the camera, and propelled by a screenplay that provides a slew of answers while challenging the audience to rethink the questions, “Sicario” is a terrific piece of grown-up entertainment.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5.