"A harrowing examination of the inter-American drug cartel.”
“Nothing will make sense to your American ears but in the end, you will understand,” warns Benicio Del Toro in Sicario, an intense socio-political thriller from French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. With measured action and suspense, Villeneuve tells a tangled web of malice and subtle brutality in the inter-American drug trade and the legal forces that desperately tries to suppress it.
The film opens with FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) leading her SWAT team on what appears to be a kidnapping case in a cavernous suburban Arizona house belonging to the Diaz family, an influential cartel operating on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. To her surprise, they discover dozens of decaying corpses stocked in plastic bags behind the walls of the building. An ensuing explosion endangers her squad, forcing Kate and her partner agent, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), to be part of a top-secret American task force commissioned to bring down the Diaz empire.
The US team is lead by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who claims to be a Defense Department contractor, and his partner, Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro), a native Colombian who was once a prosecutor in Mexico. In this high-risk mission where she is mostly kept in the dark about what’s going on, Kate finds herself doing multiple trips back and forth between U.S. and Mexico to catch a much bigger fish (Julio Cesar Cedillo) than the Diazes. More disturbingly, she finds herself involved in something far beyond the reaches of her principles and ideals.
Sicario is a suspenseful, harrowing and satisfying study of modern civic war where rules are as hazy as the demarcation that separates what is good from evil and right from wrong. The opening sequence is tense and gripping and amazingly, the film is able to sustain the air of anxiety and foreboding all throughout. Expertly, action and suspense are built and combined to create one riveting scene to another. Machismo and armaments are ever present but violence, though savage and upsetting, is handled subtly and sophisticatedly. One notable sequence is when the mission’s convoy passes from El Paso to Ciudad Juarez. As they navigate through this dubious neighborhood, where mutilated human carcasses hang upside-down from an overpass, a crossfire ensues between the caravan and some gunned local thugs amidst a heavy traffic. Frames are masterfully staged and shot here. Exploits are viewed through car’s rear windows and side mirrors or through blocking, and the presence of countless interchangeable civilians further heightens the drama.
The film does not examine the war only but also its players and the larger system that dictates how they behave. The term “sicario” is an old Latin word for assassin, a befitting title for a movie where everyone can be the killer or the hunted. Almost everything in the film is observed through Kate, an unwilling player dragged into a war in which she is almost always uninformed about the details. She has much to contribute to this nationalistic mission but territorial conflicts, legal issues, personal vendettas and practical realities hinder her. So in the end, with her good intentions trumped and wasted, she is merely an observer, another victim of an unending war.
The male characters are more professional and firm in their actions and beliefs. While Matt simply goes with the flow, Alejandro is more predatory and unforgiving. Through Alejandro’s history, it is learned how the cartel problem and corruption in the society have become deeply implanted in Colombia, Mexico and the rest of the American Southwest. The mission has become personal for Alejandro as he has lost loved ones to this merciless war. He is a battered man but his rough and tough exterior conceals his inner longings and turmoil.
The movie has stirring political and social undertones. What is the value of human life? When will the war against human and drug trafficking end? Or will it ever end? How does it affect the civilizations it touches? Can honesty, good intentions and pure virtues win the war? Or will violence also be the answer to it? These are some uncomfortable inquiries into the politics of violence and revenge in the film, but like the dust-covered suburbs and cluttered neighborhood in Latin America, there are no easy and clear answers to them.
The cast are superb with their Oscar-worthy performances. Blunt is just mesmerizing as her penetrating blue eyes project the intelligence, resilience and compassion of a woman who gets trapped in a quicksand of legal restrictions and deceptions. Del Toro is a strong magnet as he steals every frame he is in, silently projecting an uncunning aura of menace and authority. While Brolin is engaging with his light and laid-back performance, Victor Garber and Jon Benthal deliver the opacity and resolve of their individual roles.
In essence, Sicario is a haunting study of an unbeatable war and the poison it brings to the emotional and psychological composition of the people it touches. It is evocative, well-shot and magnificently acted out.
Production companies: Black Label Media, Thunder Road Pictures
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Jon Benthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cesar Cedrillo, Maximiliano Hernandez, Bernardo Saracino
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: John H. Starke, Erica Lee, Ellen H. Schwartz
Director of photography: Roger Deakins
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Costume designer: Renee April
Editor: Joe Walker
Music: Johann Johannson