A Review of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario: Captivating, Challenging, and Not Quite Good Enough

Sicario Movie Review Emily Blunt

Film: Sicario
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Primary Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Maximilliano Hernández
US Release Date: 2 October 2015

Kate Macer (Blunt) is an FBI agent with a reputation for getting things done. When the film opens, she is leading a raid on an Arizona home, where she hopes to find a kidnap victim. She doesn’t. Instead, she and her team discover dozens of corpses hidden in the walls. An explosion soon follows. Officers die.

Matt Graver (Brolin) then asks Kate to join him on a task force meant to combat the cartel. Matt’s actual title is unclear, but he claims to be some sort of “DoD consultant.” Hoping to make a real difference in the war on drugs and cartel violence, Kate agrees to accompany him on what she believes will be a mission in El Paso.

The next day, Kate finds herself on a private jet to somewhere near the US/Mexico border. On the jet, she meets an enigmatic man named Alejandro (Del Toro). Despite the fact that he is not an American, Alejandro is clearly in a position of authority on the task force, which seems to make Kate uncomfortable.

The task force’s first mission takes them into Juarez, where they retrieve a known drug lord’s brother from the Mexican authorities. The mission does not go smoothly, and Kate soon realizes that she is in for much more than she bargained for.

As the film continues, Kate’s becomes more and more uncertain of what her role on the task force truly is. At the same time, Graver and Alejandro’s true objectives grow murkier by the minute.

Featuring stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins, strong performances from Blunt and Del Toro, and a heart-pounding score from Johann Johannsson, Sicario has all the makings of a great film. As with Prisoners (2013) and Enemy (2014), Villeneuve uses Sicario both to challenge viewers and to drag them into a haunting and morally ambiguous world that they won’t soon forget. Though Taylor Sheridan’s script is not always as clear, as focused, or as committed as it could be, Sicario remains gripping and entertaining throughout. But it’s still a shame that it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.

Villeneuve has no interest in reassuring viewers. As a director, he isn’t afraid to demand a good deal from his audiences. With Sicario, Villeneuve shows yet again that he thrives in the shadows and in the gray areas of life. He does not point the lens at that which is purely good or evil—perhaps because he is not sure that there is such a thing. In many ways, Sicario is a daring film. It does not invite its viewers to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show; instead, Sicario grabs them by the throat, commands them to keep their eyes on the screen, and dares them to make sense of what they see. Unfortunately, it also loosens its grips a few times along the way.

Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Prisoners) has repeatedly shown that he has an undeniable ability to shoot dark films in a beautiful way, and the fact that he does so again in Sicario is hardly surprising. Deakins is one of the best cinematographers in Hollywood right now, and his latest work will only increase the number of people calling for the Academy to finally give the man an Oscar. With the exception of a single sequence that alternates between green night vision and colorless thermal images, it’s almost impossible to find any real faults in the film’s visuals. In Sicario, Deakins turns the bleak landscape of Arizona and Juarez into something sublime. The scenery in Sicario is as beautiful as it is unsettling, and some of the film’s aerial shots are truly stunning. In fact, the film’s surroundings could actually be said to take on the function of a character, which only enhances its atmosphere.

In addition to a combination of haunting and strangely alluring images, Sicario also presents viewers with a number of strong performances. As the strong and idealistic Kate Macer, Blunt builds on her recent work in Looper and Edge of Tomorrow. In both previous films, Blunt confidently plays an independent and more than capable woman. She does the same in Sicario, but Kate is also more vulnerable and more complex than Sara or Rita. Brolin also does good work in the film, but its most captivating performance comes from Benicio Del Toro. Alejandro is a rather opaque figure for most of Sicario, and Del Toro plays him in an understated manner that fits the world of the film perfectly. Alejandro is charismatic, threatening, and inscrutable all at once; thanks to Del Toro, he is also the character that Sicario’s viewers will think about the most.

Sicario does a number of things well, but there is nothing that it accomplishes better than the creation of tension. The film’s nightmarish opening sequence is one of the most harrowing I’ve seen in a while, and it ensures that viewers of Sicario are thoroughly unsettled well before they meet most of its main characters. As the film continues, Villeneuve continues to pull viewers to the edge of their seats, and several sequences in the film are so tense, that viewers are unlikely to forget them any time soon. The quality of the tension in the film goes a long way toward elevating Sicario above the world of the ordinary, and the film does a fine job of filling viewers with a deep-seated sense of dread as it plunges them into its underworld. They only problem is that it does commit to drowning them.

Certain details of the film’s plot are muddled, and viewers may find themselves feeling like they watch the whole film halfway in the dark. Given the film’s subject matter and Kate’s place in it, it’s more than reasonable that this effect was deliberate. It keeps viewers focused and on-edge, but it also makes it difficult to figure out where the script and the filmmakers stand. This—combined with the fact that the script loses both its teeth and some of its focus before it’s all said and done—leaves both viewers and the film itself in a somewhat confused state of limbo.

For instance, when the film begins, just about every viewer will regard Kate as the lead protagonist. She is presented as the character that the film cares the most about, and Villeneuve clearly intends for audiences to identify with her. However, the further one gets into the film, the more Kate as a character gets lost, even as she remains visible on screen. In fact, though she starts out as a strong protagonist, Kate is eventually reduced to a mere stand-in for the naiveté of viewers. The fact that Kate’s moral and legal concerns never feel fully justified is also a problem, for if the film itself won’t take Kate’s side, then why should audiences?

Late in the film, Sicario effectively abandons Kate for Alejandro, and it becomes hard to tell who the film is actually about; as frustrating (and disorienting) as this is, the bigger issue lies in why the film’s narrative shifts focus in the first place. By giving its third act to Alejandro, Sicario seems to subvert—and thus, to weaken—Kate even further. The end of the film also shrinks many of the larger and more complex issues in Sicario down into a much more conventional revenge narrative, thereby hamstringing the whole endeavor.

Sicario also hinders itself by intercutting scenes of a Mexican cop (Hernández) and his family with the rest of the film. In addition to providing some rather inelegant foreshadowing, the scenes are clearly meant to humanize the cop and his family for emotional impact. I imagine that Villeneuve and Sheridan wanted this aspect of the film to add yet another dimension to the moral and emotional quagmire that Sicario sinks its viewers into. The problem is that everything productive that those scenes do could have been accomplished with a single line from the cop’s mouth and without pulling viewers away from the main drama. All he had to say was, “I have a family. I do this for them.”

When the visual, the audio, and the narrative aspects of Sicario all come together, the results are fantastic, and there are examples of relentless—and even brilliant—filmmaking throughout the movie. At its best, Sicario is a bold and arresting tale of a war that cannot be won by anyone. At its worst, it’s a conventional and narrowly focused thriller. If it seems like I’m being hard on the film, it is only because I cannot let go of how great it could have been. Like Prisoners, Sicario is a film that starts out stronger than it ends. That said, if Sicario is what happens when Villeneuve loses his way a bit, I can’t wait to see what happens when he doesn’t.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. Despite my complaints, I enjoyed watching Sicario, and I would love to hear what you have to say about it! Just leave a comment below, or connect with me on Twitter.

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