Any research on the “war on drugs” ends up yielding the revelation that what should be a simple “cops vs crooks” battle is in actuality a murky and often confusing labyrinth that really expands to “order vs chaos.” Sicario is an ominous crime thriller from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy) and it plays a lot less like the model for movies about the conflict between cops and drug dealers than it is the surgical grafting of Steven Soderbergh’s anti-drug opus Traffic and Kathryn Bigelow’s morally ambiguous portrait of the “war on terror” Zero Dark Thirty. Villeneuve applies his cerebral sensibilities to the model laid out in gritty old-school muscular crime dramas like The French Connection and the results equal his most accomplished film to date. Sicario is an at times frustrating work that keeps it’s audiences in the dark as they are posed with questions & conundrums: How far should we go to protect our livelihood? And what are we actually protecting when we decide there are no rules?
Sicario (the title references a Mexican slang term for “hitman,” born of the Latin and Hebrew term, “sicarius” which roughly translates to “man of daggers”), follows Emily Blunt, as FBI agent Kate, as she is inducted into a joint anti-Narcotics task force led by Josh Brolin’s Matt to take on a Juarez-based cartel. Kate is kept in the dark about nearly everything that is going on, almost unrealistically so, but the result is that her disorientation and paranoia is evoked directly into the audience. Confounding matters even more is the presence of Benecio Del Toro’s Alejandro, a mysterious tag- along into this task force who steals every scene he’s in with almost superhuman tactical prowess. Thus our key players begin their journey into combating notoriously violent criminals (whose actions are indeed ripped from our real-life headlines) straight into the proverbial heart of darkness. There’s a running joke among film fan circles that all you have to do to guess the theme of a Villeneuve film is to insert the title into the question “Who is the ‘real’ ___” and that certainly applies here but there’s a lot more going on than that.
This movie finds Villeneuve and his collaborators honing in on a subject suited to their gifts for showmanship, tension/suspense and violence (both physical and psychological). This is a film that makes a few obvious narrative cheats to make a larger point but one cannot deny the way that the film captures the insanity, tragedy, existential gloom and overall horror-movie ambiance of the modern drug war along southern US-Mexican border. I have no doubt that this film, much like Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, will be scrutinized for facts as well as its implied worldview. Actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan’s story, however, is able to nimbly walk that line between assuring us that all this manly murder and mayhem is “Keeping Us Safe [TM]” versus surmising that the whole thing is a gruesome catastrophe. The film is primarily concerned with dramatizing the internal with the seductive atmosphere of amorality, the allure of the permanent worst-case scenario versus our need to be “above evil.” Thus, it’s not so much that Sicario endorses dubious policies so much as it depicts a world where everything is terrible and nothing can be truly understood.
This movie constantly hedges its moral bets regardless of where you may think of the conclusion it ultimately comes down to however there is no disputing its ingenuity, its technical excellence (with cinematography by the inimitable Roger Deakins of Skyfall fame) and its absolute control over mounting a consistent atmosphere of dread and suspense. Villeneuve handles action sequences with an uncanny flair (a change of pace from his previous efforts which emphasized stillness), but the filmmaker also understands that the key to effective action and suspense is to build up to it slowly and inexorably. Sequences carry an evocation of the work of Orson Wells (Touch of Evil), Alfred Hitchcock (Vertigo) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear) in that the film escalates the tension by giving something away in advance as the dread builds up to the inevitability of their conclusion. The cinematography is inky, with strong contrasts and high black-levels that evoke the shadowy obfuscation of truths and motivation of the cast and world. Deakins’ night-time sequences are as eerie as they are picturesque and his daytime shots trap the modern-day drug war into something out of a nightmare-vision of spaghetti western. And don’t worry when I use the word “disorienting,” as the camera here is anything but, moving slowly and precisely as a prey nervously looking out for predators. The music by Jóhann Jóhannsson never goes for obvious choices either, sometimes even being drowned out completely only to realize how deafening and maddening silences can be. Movies are less about “what” they are about so much as “how” they are about it and the way this movie is crafted is artfully precise. Even the dialogue, which is often done in lies/doublespeak, is kept at the minimum needed to let intangible aspects of character and world building be left largely to being dramatized by the performances and audio visual cues of film grammar. We’ve been spoiled by films in the past that spoon-feed us everything, Sicario is one that prefers we feed ourselves.
There are few moments of the film that don’t quite work. As mentioned before, the movie makes some big narrative cheats, the least of which are some of the coincidences and contrivances which allow certain things to play out as they do. If I’m being vague, it’s on purpose since the big moment that could take you out of the experience happens pretty late in the movie. To some, the tug-of-war between Blunt and DelToro for screen-time (and narratively) will alienate viewers in need of a defined center to the film but that may in fact be on purpose, driving us to the general nihilism of the whole endeavor and it’s appropriate since Kate’s status as a POV character means she is inherently fleshed out less than the characters she is observing like Alejandro despite being in nearly every scene in the movie. Needless to say, this movie is tight, muscular, devoid of extraneous material that take away from the “big picture” and that is perhaps it’s best accomplishment.
This is the kind of movie that many film fans and critics clamor for. It’s a mid-budget ($30 million) adult-minded movie. And I don’t mean “adult” as in the subject matter so much as how the movie forces you to work to piece together both what is going on and ponder questions that may not have answers. The frustration and disorientation of being in the dark is what the movie is all about, beyond anything dealing with organized crime and the legality of enforcement. With strong and lived-in performances from all the actors and the impeccable craft from the filmmakers, Sicario may be a hard movie to watch, but it’s an easy movie to respect.