“Nothing will make sense to your American ears. But in the end, you will understand.”
In this sentence, Benicio Del Toro’s chilling character, Alejandro, sums up the experience of Sicario. It is a film about manipulation and removal, alienation and grievous violence. After a sting that reveals a horrific, drug-related crime on American soil, FBI agent Kate Macer is recruited into a government task force intent on sowing discord within the ranks of the Mexican drug cartels. Despite her prowess as an FBI agent, Kate quickly finds herself out of her depth in the company of a stone-cold group of military men, including an overly chummy, operational lead named Matt Graver, and a mysterious, inscrutable wildcard called Alejandro. In their grim company, Kate finds her morality and willpower tested further and further as the pieces start to fall into place and the full extent of the operation in which she is involved comes into focus.
There is something to be said for the skill with which Sicario withholds information. The first hour of the film is basically a ride-along, the focus placed solely upon Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer as she is dragged into a situation far above her paygrade. Though she functions as an avatar for the audience, Kate does possess a degree of agency, making decisions and asking questions that make sense given the character presented to us in the opening scenes; Kate is idealistic and driven, perhaps even to her own detriment. However, there is a nobility in her desires, making her naivety forgivable considering her righteous intent. Yet therein lies the crux of the film: Kate is a woman who sees the world in stark black and white; the rest of the players in Sicario wade fully into the gray, determined to accomplish their goals through whatever means available. What the task force’s purpose is and what exactly Kate is involved in remains nebulous at best until about 3/4ths into the film, and it is a tribute to the strength of writer/actor Taylor Sheridan’s writing that the film remains as engaging and thought-provoking in the first two acts despite Kate’s relative ignorance. Our experience as the audience mirrors hers, with information being dealt out part and parcel until the whole, ugly affair is written out plainly in the last act, shattering previous expectations, and then taking the film in a completely different direction to offer a devastating one-two punch of an ending.
Kate’s path as a character is heavily affected by the presence of the aforementioned Alejandro and Matt Graver. Alejandro is an inscrutable man, calm and taciturn; yet there is an unspoken darkness in him that lies dormant until the latter half of the film and when it is unleashed, it leads to a white-knuckled twenty minute sequence of tension that will no doubt leave an impression upon many viewers. One moment in particular is so upsetting and surprising in its execution (in a distinctly, “I can’t believe they actually did that” sort of way) that I could do nothing but stare, open-mouthed at the screen. Del Toro’s sullen mask and muttered, yet carefully worded responses are what make Alejandro such a compelling character; the many dimensions layered into his expressions and actions showcase the skills of an actor who knows exactly what he wants to convey and how to convey it. A spotlight performance for this film.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is the smirking Matt Graver, who runs interference on Kate and generally makes her life that much more complicated. Graver’s generally nonchalant response to their increasingly terrifying situation is disturbing to say the least. He is a man of intent; he knows what he and his team need to do and isn’t afraid to do it; whether or not it is legal is irrelevant. Josh Brolin plays Graver with an unsettling cheerfulness; Graver is the type of man who wears flip-flops and cargo pants to a meeting with high ranking FBI officials and chews gum as he blows people away. He likes Kate, but is clearly frustrated that she is so hamstrung by her unmalleable morality. Brolin here does some great work, being charming and scary in equal measure and offering a nice contrast to Del Toro’s quietly threatening presence. Another pitch-perfect performance in a film with three.
Which brings us to Emily Blunt. I believe this is the strongest performance of Emily Blunt’s career so far (yes, perhaps even better than Edge of Tomorrow’s Full Metal Bitch). She brings both strength and vulnerability to Kate. Though driven by the pursuit of justice, one can see her resolve slowly start to waver, then crumble as the film continues and the situation begins to spiral out of her control. Her determination to do the right thing is admirable and you truly feel for Kate as she struggles to not only remain alive during the events of the film, but to retain her moral integrity as well. I hope Blunt gets some awards recognition for this performance, because it is truly excellent.
Technically, the film is beautiful, contrasting serene Mexican vistas with the distinct ugliness of the events depicted. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, who last wowed audiences with Prisoners (seriously, if you haven’t seen that, do so now, if only for Jake Gyllenhaal’s incredible performance), returns with another gem; Sicario is an exercise in isolation, violence, and a meditation on morality in an unforgiving world. Another reason why the film looks so good is because it was lensed by Roger Deakins, who has also served as the cinematographer on films like No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, and a slew of other painterly pictures. All of this is ably supported by the pulsing ambient score, written by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, which imbues each and every moment with tension.
The last thing I will say about Sicario is that it is intense. It is a film filled with dread and discomfort, teasing violence and tragedy around every corner. Its violence, though grisly and horrifying, is never meant to be titillating, which is good considering the deadly seriousness of the subject matter. Overall, it is a wholly excellent film filled with memorable performances and an unpredictable story that will keep you in a state of breathless anticipation until its final frame.