The drug world is an ugly place. The war against drugs can be even uglier, as director Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, “Sicario,” vividly and profoundly shows. The film packs heat, both visceral and psychological, and among all of the on-screen violence and acts of immorality, it delivers its central message most vigorously in a beautiful shot of children playing soccer. “Sicario” is an absolute powerhouse and one of the year’s very best films.
The film opens with tough and idealistic FBI agent Kate (played by Emily Blunt). Kate plays by the rules and has a firm belief in the concept of justice. After a drug bust that ends rather explosively, she is put in the position to join a cross-agency task force led by two agents who seem to have a very questionable background. These two guys are Matt and Alejandro (played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, respectively) and they gain Kate’s trust by informing her that their mission is to stop the terrorist whose bombs are killing her team.
The opening drug bust sequence is terrifying and sets a high standard for the rest of the film. It’s tense, dark and unpredictable, and Villeneuve skillfully holds that tone until the end credits start to roll. “Sicario” grips you by the neck and refuses to let go until it is ready to. It confidently throws in twists and turns which puts Kate’s morals and ideals, as an FBI agent, to the test, and sprouts her uneasiness toward Matt, Alejandro and their entire operation. Things just don’t feel quite right.
Villeneuve is four-for-four. His films—“Prisoners,” “Incendies,” “Enemy” and now “Sicario”—are brutal yet captivating experiences. They are all psychologically complex, containing moral murkiness in their characters’ actions and motivations. In “Sicario,” that moral confusion is a key ingredient in propelling the story. These people are in a world that is drowning in violence and ugliness.
When our characters start their operation and make their way into the drug world within Mexico, Villeneuve masterfully presents its harsh reality and puts his audience right behind the eyes of Kate: confused, disturbed, uncomfortable and, above all, terrified. She’s strong, yes, but there’s an uncertainty in what exactly she signed up for. This is what makes Kate such an engrossing character; we identify with her right from the get-go.
“Sicario” is very gory, but it is never overwhelming or overly stylized. The graphic violence is executed in service of the story. It’s on display here, as realistic as it is, to showcase the sheer brutality and ugliness of the drug world. What is most striking, however, is a sub-plot that shows the nature of a family whose husband/father is a Mexican police officer. While at first they feel out-of-place, these sequences eventually add up to what I think is most truthful about the film, and showcases what is truly grotesque and corrupt about the Mexican drug world.
Shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film looks remarkable and beautifully conveys a sense of dread and corruption. The original score is ominous and blends very well with the cinematography, heightening the tension and adding great heft to the film on its exterior. The film is also a great showcase for its actors—Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, all of whom are absolutely dynamite.
Watching movies like “Sicario” is the reason why we love movies. It’s a gripping, powerful film and an unforgettable experience. It’s talky, however, tightly paced and never short of suspense and tension. Oscar season has officially begun!