Sicario (2015) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, grisly images, and language
Running Time: 121 min.

Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan

Review published October 4 , 2015

Emily Blunt (Into the Woods, Edge of Tomorrow) stars as FBI agent and SWAT team member Kate Macer, whose services are voluntarily enlisted in helping out a mysterious group of black ops law-enforcement agents headed by drug war advisor Matt Graver (Brolin, Inherent Vice) and partner in crime-fighting in former Colombian prosecutor Alejandro (Del Toro, Guardians of the Galaxy), who are operating under the radar in their effort to deal with the extremely dangerous Mexican drug cartels that have begun to take firm root on the US/Mexican border, and have even spilled over activities into the Southwestern U.S.  She's in way over her head in the tasks at hand as she travels to the 'lion's den' of Mexico's Ciudad Juarez, where the drug cartels have complete dominion. Macer, a firm believer in the law and in her duty to uphold it, sees her new partners' tactics as not only illegal, but potentially immoral, but her desire to see justice done after a calamitous mishap that resulted in several of her fellow agents killed in a suburban Arizona house raid gives her the resolve necessary to see the people responsible go down, specifically cartel kingpin Fausto Alarcon.

French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve directs, giving this obvious Hollywood production an engrossing feel of realism, even through some action scenes that seem to be culled from video games like "Metal Gear Solid".  Along with such recent efforts as Prisoners and Enemy, Villeneuve has been putting together quite the varied resume of efforts that, even if viewers don't cotton to them completely, most will respect his filmmaking prowess enough to be intrigued by what kind of movie he's making next, and Sicario may draw the most interest in future efforts than anything he's helmed to date.  Sicario is like a Michael Mann film, but light years better than recent Mann efforts like 2015's Blackhat.  Villenueve isn't solely interested in delivering an action-thriller, though Sicario is certainly a great example of one, relishing the moments of silence just as much as the bursts of violence that often lurks just around the corner.  He's more interested in analyzing the dark recesses of the human mind, and how our situations govern our behavior and beliefs, often becoming the enemy in the process of trying to destroy it.

Themes abound about how, in order to kill monsters, you might end up becoming a monster yourself.  As Kate discovers more about the operations she has volunteered for, as well as the people behind it, her confidence in them comes into doubt, as well as her trust, not only in her fellow drug cartel busters, but also in the job values has sworn to uphold in her career as a protector.  Sicario is written by "Sons of Anarchy" actor Taylor Sheridan, his first screenplay to be made into a feature, and it is quite an impressive debut into a new medium for the little-known thespian.  There are some occasional story contrivances, including a major one involving Jon Bernthal (We Are Your Friends), who plays a divorced local cop who takes a shine to the also-divorced Macer, who hasn't really had the time and inclination to pursue any romance for a long time.  Some of the action pieces, especially in the film's climax, are very Hollywood, which does reduce the feeling of plausibility that the movie's best moments dabble with.  They are gripping to watch when they're on, but there is an incurred aftertaste once it's all over that deflates the ability to discuss the drug war by pointing directly to these moments in the film as something honest or real.

Emily Blunt gives the performance of her career thus far as agent Macer, who serves as our all-important everywoman surrogate to react to the appalling developments around her, growing ever more uneasy to the point of feeling sick to the pit of her stomach at the sights and stories she's exposed to around her during this odyssey into the heart of the drug war.  She doesn't understand Graver's aims, though she asks throughout, but he remains tight-lipped while he has to, with the only assurance is that, if and when the time comes, she will not only understand them, but also agree with them if she wants to actually make a difference in the drug war, even if it goes against all of her training in law, justice and her basic sense of right and wrong.

Even with a compact but star-studded cast, relative unknown Daniel Kaluuya (Kick-Ass 2) steals most scenes he's in as Kate's protective fellow agent Reggie. Josh Brolin is friendly, almost to the point of being unnerving, as the enigmatic Graver, whose agenda we aren't given the full details of until well into the picture, and even when we find out about it, we aren't entirely sure how to feel about it.  Benicio Del Toro, who also appeared in another great Hollywood drug trade movie, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (for which he would earn an Academy Award), is equally mesmerizing, playing the mostly silent partner who happens to know the ins and outs of the drug cartel business, especially in Fausto Alarcon's drug operation.  Is he a man who is working with American law enforcement as part of a deal, or is he merely a man who was wronged by Diaz and wanting revenge for past misdeeds?  And is that a good thing if he succeeds?

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the phenomenal, pulse-pounding, eerie score from Oscar-winning composer Johann Johansson (The Theory of Everything), which works magic throughout in giving what could have been a straight-forward procedural a pervasive feeling of dread and terror that is rare to find outside of a suspenseful horror movie.  Working in collaboration with cinematography wunderkind Roger Deakins (Unbreakable), Sicario is just as effective, if not more so, without dialogue, where the oppressive nature of the score and the almost other-worldly way that the movie is shot, capturing the desolate and lifeless desert environs surrounding the urban centers, forcingthe viewer into feeling like strangers in a strange land -- isolated, haunted, and suffocated by an ever-constricting feeling of bleakness.

Sicario may not emerge as the most definitive story about the drug trade, but it does do what it sets out to do quite effectively, which is to show what a horror show it all is.  It also shows how important the fight is against the drug cartels, and quite cynically, how futile it is as well.  The most biting sting of the film comes from the realization that there is an underlying suggestion of Sicario is that the drug war is a losing battle, one that can't be stopped.  The best we can do is hope to contain it before it spills over into the everyday lives of Americans, and to do that, it will involve the U.S. not stopping it so much as becoming complicit in it. 

As the film suggests, as long as 20% of the population insists on being drug abusers, the rest of us are going to have to pay the price for their pleasure, which further suggests that the front lines of battle that win the day is going to have to start at home, but, even more cynical, is the fact that the war on the home front is just as impossible to surmount.  It's not a War on Drugs any longer, but rather, a game, with everyone fighting for better position. There is no end to the game when the kingpin goes down; a reset button is hit and we do it all over again when the next inevitable one emerge.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo