IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 121 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
During a kidnapping raid in Chandler, Arizona, FBI Special Weapons and Tactics Teams agent Kate Macer and her group discover lots of corpses in a house along with a bomb in the backyard shed which kills two officers. Her boss, Dave Jennings recommends her to Matt Graver, a Department of Defense adviser leading a team of elite agents searching for the men responsible, one of them being cartel boss Manuel Diaz. On the plane to El Paso, Texas, Kate meets Matt’s partner, Alejandro Gillick, whose role becomes more and more uncomfortably hazy to Kate. She learns that, with lots of others, she will actually be going to Juarez, Mexico instead to extract a prisoner, Guillermo, for questioning. When cartel hit men intercept them as they cross back into American soil, Kate is appalled by the lack of concern for civilian safety and procedure….
Sicario already comes with the reputation of being one of the best films of the year, and I must say that I felt slightly apprehensive as it begun and wondered if this could be yet another example of me disagreeing with the majority [though I feel that this occurs rather less often than it used to be]. Silly really, because director Denis Villeneuve has already proved himself as a very fine filmmakers with Prisoners and Enemy, while of course I’m also one of those who feel Emily Blunt graces any film by her presence. In any case, Sicario is a stunning piece of cinema that proves even more that Villeneuve is one of the best ‘newish’ directors out there while also containing an intelligent and thought provoking script by former actor Taylor Sheridan that asks some important questions, and possibly, but not decisively, gives some uncomfortable answers in how to solve a war that the good guys just ain’t winning, plus three outstanding performances by its three leads. We know that Emily Blunt [ok, this could be me being biased again, but I doubt that many readers would disagree] is consistently strong, and that Benecio Del Toro, while not always getting the parts that he deserves, can really deliver, but who would have thought that Josh Brolin would be so amazingly great?
Now I don’t know if this will carry over to the ‘home viewing’ releases, but Sicario begins rather oddly, a relentless drum and synthesiser rhythmic pattern being heard even before the main titles are underway which may cause some to wonder if it’s the sound from the film playing in the auditorium next door [a common annoyance with me, though there’s not much that cinemas can do about it!]. The film opens on our heroine Kate leading her team on a raid which unearths a load of disturbingly convincing dead bodies and a bomb which kills two of her men. Immediately the film feels very ‘real,’ but more than that, Villeneuve, aided by his cinematographer Roger Deakins [yes, the brilliant Roger Deakins who is one of the best in the business today and gives us a whole load of superb shots in this film] and his editor Joe Walker, are able to give a sense of gritty realism without shaking the camera about and editing scenes to death. Now, if you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you might very well be sick of me moaning about ‘shakycam’ and very fast editing, and it possibly does seem that I complain too much about what are pretty much part and parcel of modern filmmaking, but at least I can now praise a film for not doing this kind of thing even though it’s the kind of film where, outside of ‘found footage’, you would expect, and even accept, the fact that these techniques are employed more than you would in some other types of movie. In any case, I felt like jumping up and hitting the roof [though I had no hope of reaching it] because I could see everything that was going on and didn’t feel like throwing up or covering my eyes!
Sicario doesn’t waste much time in sending Kate on her first ‘mission’ with her new employers, but even just before that Villeneuve and his crew have already achieved a very clever thing. Without necessarily drawing attention to itself [unless you’re like me who is prone to paying more attention to cinematography than script], we are made to feel, through editing, shot choices and of course acting, Kate’s insecurity at her surroundings, and the fact that she doesn’t entirely comprehend everything. This is quite subtle, but of course subtlety disappears once Kate begins her journey to Mexico by plane, aerial shots somehow making the countryside look like that of another planet, which is pretty much how Kate must feel. She, and her already somewhat shady employers and companions, then cross into Mexico by cars, and that Jóhann Jóhannsson-composed music heard at the beginning returns, and gradually starts to have bits and pieces played above it, though still coming across like some mad drugged up techno as it helps to increase the tension more and more. Nothing really happens for ages, but the suspense is simply incredible, conveying the sense of entering into a really threatening world, most notably when Kate passes a bridge with mutilated bodies hanging from it, the seriousness of the stakes becoming chillingly clear. Villeneuve is happy to take his time here, and it works superbly, but of course all this is eventually broken by a gun fight, only here the seemingly ‘good’ guys open fire first. You know that exhilaration when you’re watching a really good movie for the first time, and probably grinning from ear to ear? I damn well felt that at this stage of Sicario.
Well, few films could really maintain that level of brilliance, and Sicario does take a breather for a short while after all this and seems like it’s going to allow Kate, who is aghast at the way everyone else is behaving and begins to wonder what the hell she’s signed up for, some fun, but even a bar pick-up goes wrong and after this the knife-edge tension returns as the film, more and more, blurs the lines between good and bad, while in the process suggesting that, to win the war on drugs, ethics have to be broken. As in Prisoners, we are asked to consider certain moral issues and weigh them. Right from early on in the film, we are shown scenes of a gangster with his wife and child, in moments that seem pointless but later become clear when said gangster is threatened with his life by the good guys. We aren’t necessarily being asked to sympathise with a nasty person, but are definitely being asked to sympathise with his family, and even with the families of various other minions who are shot down. This is one film where you certainly don’t feel like cheering when bad guys are moan down. The centre of the film’s ambiguity, and featuring in many of its more ‘difficult’ scenes, is Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro. He does some things that are very horrid indeed, but we do eventually learn the reason for the way he is [though, in pure Clint Eastwood fashion, the actor removed much of his dialogue from the script, in the process giving the character more mystique], and are asked to consider if what he does is justified.
Despite all this, Sicario does become a bit conventional in its final quarter, even if it finishes on two superbly written dialogue scenes. This film proves that Villeneuve can stage exciting action with the best of them, the highlight being a nocturnal underground set piece, sometimes shown through night-vision and thermal cameras, where, as we often do, we adopt Kate’s POV and here just follow the folk in front of her, most of the actual action happening just around corners where, by the time she catches up, the killing has been done, but, far from being disappointing, it’s extremely exciting. By this time Kate, who is often shown looking at herself in reflections in a simple but effective device, is really out of her depth. Blunt’s character initially seems like a variation on her tough, no-nonsense soldier from Edge Of Tomorrow but becomes gradually more and more lost and threatening to drown in the horrible world in which she finds herself, a world where ‘normal’ morality just doesn’t apply. It’s an Oscar-worthy performance, often combining toughness and vulnerability at the same time, but, truth be told, that didn’t really surprise me. What did was how excellent Brolin was as Matt, investing him with a false cockiness that is probably just a cover for how he really feels about what he’s doing. Put it this way, all three of the lead performances deserve Oscar nominations with the way they bring their characters to life, and how they make it almost impossible for you to take your eyes off them.
Sicario is provocative and unnerving in its implications, yet still manages to be thoroughly accessible and entertaining. Technically the level of filmmaking is very high indeed, feeling very fresh and up-to-date without feeling the need to resort to some of modern filmmaking’s worst attributes. There were moments when it was overly predictable for me, and moments when that incredible tension that literally had me gripping the side of my seat at times evaporated a little too much for my liking, but it’s still a considerable achievement. Put it this way – when a sequel to Blade Runner was first announced I got really annoyed and swore, when it was reported that Villeneuve was on board I changed my mind somewhat and begun to think: “Well, it could just work”, but now, I just can’t wait for it and say to Villeneuve: “Bring it on”.