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Film Review | Sicario

Guest reviewer Marco Attard is quite taken by Denis Villeneuve’s Mexican drug cartel thriller starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro

3 November 2015, 3:47pm
True Detecting: Emily Blunt steps into the heart of darkness, seen from the very first sequence in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario
True Detecting: Emily Blunt steps into the heart of darkness, seen from the very first sequence in Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario
by Marco Attard

In Mexico, ‘sicario’ means ‘hitman’, the opening to the film named Sicario kindly informs the viewer. I’m told the word has the same meaning in other countries, including Italy and Spain, but that tagline tells all one needs to know about this film. It involves a hitman, and the setting being Mexico one can surely bet drug cartels are somehow involved. Review over, you can stop reading now, right?

Well, of course not. Director Denis Villeneuve’s latest kicks off with one Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an FBI agent leading a raid on a house in Phoenix, Arizona.

The situation on the house escalates, with Macer just about managing to dodge a shotgun blast, one revealing something intensely sinister sealed within the drywall – dozens of corpses, all victims of the drug cartel operating in the area. Two cops die during the assault, victims of a booby-trapped shed, leading Macer to demand further action against the cartel.

 

Enter Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a seemingly jovial operative of murky affiliations (DOD? CEA? WTF?) and a pressing invitation for Macer. Will she join him and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a colleague of sorts clad in a crumpled white suit and a most morose of expressions, on a trip to have a look how things are done on the other side of the border? And thus starts Macer’s trip on a mission with an almost absurdist objective, to “dramatically overreact”.

Make no mistake, Sicario is less of a documentary on the state of the effect of the supposed war on drugs on the people of Mexico, and more heavily fictionalised thriller. Villeneuve’s direction starts off taut with the assault turned house of horrors, and never, ever lets go, even while ensuring both characters and action have space to breathe.

Through a combination of tightly controlled editing and superb photography scenes taking their time to build up to a crescendo, even during sequences as simple as, say, Graver going up a ladder to an air base roof in order to have a look at “something cool” (the “something cool” in this case is a view of gunfire and explosions from the cartel war going on in Juárez).

Veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, the man behind most of the Coen brothers’ output and the latest James Bond films, shoots Sicario much like a Western of sorts – one replacing six shooters and horses with assault rifles and armoured SUVs, but still involving an endless war between outlaws and wannabe law enforcement on the fringes of a beautifully bleak, almost alien landscape.

In the background, the minimalist thumps and screeching strings of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s soundtrack only add to the tension, while sounding like nothing else out there.

As for performances, the stars here are definitely Brolin and Del Toro. Brolin’s Graver exudes menace even as he merely smiles, and while Alejandro might appear morose and of very few words (reportedly Del Toro demanded his script to be slashed, insisting the character is not one to speak so much) he goes to show he is the more dangerous of the two.

Emily Blunt is also in fine form, even if her character is little more than audience stand-in – like the viewer, Macer is thrown into the deep end of a situation far more beyond the law and morality she doggedly sticks to, and by the end her involvement in these events is little more than peripheral.

A similar, if even more unnecessary, addition is a subplot involving the day-to-day life of a cartel henchmen, a sequence perhaps marred with its bringing to mind henchman-based gags from the Austin Powers movies (the concept is also seen in an issue of the cult comic series The Invisibles).

In short, Sicario is truly Alejandro’s story, and such inclusions points out an Achilles Heel of both Taylor Sheridan’s script and Villeneuve’s direction – a leaner, nastier film would have ditched Graver’s character and overall arc, even if that would have made for a film that’s almost unbearably bleak for most audiences.

Still, such criticism does not diminish Sicario’s achievement – this is a proper, solid thriller, of the kind Hollywood seemingly does not make any of these days (probably/surely because it is too busy with superhero-based pabulum). Yes, the unkind can describe it as little more than violent, sensationalist pulp set in a scary place south of the border, but Sicario looks good, sounds great and keeps the sinister tension going on for all of its 121-minute running time.

Fun fact: Villeneuve and Deakins will be behind the recently announced Blade Runner sequel, and while there’s no way the world even needs such a film, the strength of their collaboration alone is enough to make this reviewer check it out come opening day. 

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