Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Summer movie season is over and as we enter fall we also enter the awards season of movies. September is often a little early, but certainly October, November and December are often full of the types of movies that will be up for multiple Academy Awards come February. The latest from Denis Villeneuve, who also directed the nominated films Prisoners and Incendies, may have delivered another awards season hit with Sicario, which features plenty of Oscar worthy material throughout. Focused on the drug war that mixes with Mexican immigration, border patrol and Southwestern crime, Sicario manages to take the viewer through a heck of a thrill ride, maintaining tension from the opening scene through the end.
Kate (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent who has been making raids in Arizona, catching small time criminals. After a rather grisly encounter during one particular raid, Kate is approached by an FBI task force to aid in cutting the head off the Mexican drug cartel causing the violence Kate has been cleaning up for years. Excited for a chance to make a real difference in the fight, Kate signs up only to find out that the team leader Matt (Josh Brolin) and his right hand man Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) are less than forthcoming about their tactics and even less so about their objective. Kept in the dark on the plan, but hoping to make a difference, Kate tags along for the ride anyway, but soon becomes frustrated by the lack of details. When she finally gets the information she covets, Kate begins to wonder what she got herself into in the first place.
Sicario is the type of movie that clicks on a number of different levels and as a result comes off as an extremely taut and tension filled thriller, polished with some of the best work of the year both in front of and behind the camera. Led by a great lead performance from Emily Blunt, who, after Edge of Tomorrow, has proven to be convincing as tough, layers her FBI agent with a sense morality and vulnerability which is admirable and relatable, but also problematic given the circumstances she gets thrown into. Josh Brolin plays coy and confident very well here, but it is Benicio del Toro’s performance which compliments Blunt’s to perfection, showing a mysteriously callused man who perhaps a decade ago may have been a moral, wide-eyed agent himself, just like Kate, before the weight of criminal evil and immorality broke him down to what he is now.
The story and performances are framed wonderfully as ever from famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is still seeking his first Academy Award. Consistently delivering great work, Deakins adds depth and a twisted sense of beauty to Villeneuve and Sheridan’s landscape with an uncanny sense for lighting, allowing focus on details while maintaining a sense of the bigger, more ominous picture. Ominous may also be a good word for the score. Provided by Johann Johannsson, the score is bombastic at times and delicate at others, mirroring the sense of dread and almost false hope seen throughout by Kate’s character. And lastly, it is director Denis Villeneuve’s sense of space and timing which compliments Taylor Sheidan’s script to give a slow burn thrill ride which manages to be both slow and ominous and big and action packed at the same time.
Efficiency is the name of the game for Villeneuve, who spares no time for the viewer to settle back into their seat from the first gut-wrenching scene to the next. Villeneuve manages to create a film that feels like there is no room to breathe when really there is plenty. It may not be the easiest film to follow, as we are kept as much in the dark as Kate, but Villeneuve’s film is not smarter than the audience. Instead it trusts its audience enough to keep them in the dark for as long as it does, something most films aren’t brave enough to do. There is a lot of intrigue and mind games at play in Sicario, requiring patience from the audience in the face of numerous questions, but like Kate, who at one point asks what the hell is going on, the audience should listen to Matt’s response and “just keep watching.” Or as Alejandro says, “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, just keep an eye on the time.”
***1/2 – Great