This tightly-wound and tense film from Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy) examines the Mexico-US drug trade while hopping back and forth across the border, and is perhaps one of the more muscular suspense thrillers made in recent years, at times bringing to mind through its set pieces Kathryn Bigelow’s taut Iraq-set drama The Hurt Locker. There’s little of the symbolism and all-out weirdness of Villeneuve’s previous film, in which Jake Gyllenhaal played a man whose life is sent into a tailspin when he discovers he has a doppelgänger, but it’s replaced here by a certain grittiness that the director hasn’t managed to achieve before, even in his earlier film about child abduction. Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay helps Villeneuve considerably in this regard, and although he doesn’t rely too much on the flamboyant (and excellent) cinematography of the great Roger Deakins to add to the hard-boiled tone, his leading actors hit the right notes in a fine ensemble performance.
Most prominent is Emily Blunt’s FBI agent Kate Macer, first seen in the midst of a white-knuckle raid on an Arizona household linked to a Mexican drug cartel. She is the only woman with a substantial role in the film and her presence in what is essentially a world of very big, very dangerous men ensures that she stands out, particularly as the story progresses. Blunt’s character earns a promotion (of sorts), hooking up with Josh Brolin’s CIA agent and Benecio del Toro’s shadowy former attorney, and looks slight when standing next to or near the various hulking ex-special forces mercenaries who accompany the trio on their missions: the first is a nail-biting extraction of a prisoner across the border (during which Deakins delivers some memorable overhead shots of a snaking column of vehicles marauding through the traffic), while equally tense is a late night strike on a hidden tunnel being used by the cartels to transport drugs. The screenplay does not reduce Macer to a gibbering wreck at any stage, but it’s noticable that her initial strength diminishes as the film progresses and she is never comfortable with the demands and surprises of the job (somewhat understandably); Kate is repeatedly shocked at the actions of both parties to this war. Her relatively low status as a pawn in a particularly gruesome game of chess is continually linked to that of a courrupt Mexican policeman (Maximiliano Hernández), who moonlights as a drugs mule, and there’s a sense throughout that she is being used. There is a warning from del Toro’s Alejandro near the end of the film that the area she is working in is ‘a land of wolves now’, and rather than merely implying that she doesn’t fit in he tells her directly to go and find a small town somewhere where the law still exists. This is a nasty warning message that has probably originated from Brolin’s cocky agent Garver, coming as it does just minutes after he clashes with Kate over the legality of an operation, but Alejandro’s point is arguably proven shortly after he leaves.
Blunt’s character represents the audience’s way in to this world, and we generally see events from her point of view, sharing her disbelief at the grim sights of modern Juarez and identifying with her fear when violence suddenly erupts; by contrast all but one of the men around her are old hands, and nothing seems to surprise them. We can also sympathise with Kate’s frustration at not knowing what she is getting into and we can also understand her curiosity: Garver drip feeds some information but witholds a lot more, while she is drawn to the mysterious Alejandro, and unsuccessfully directs many of her questions to this man of few words; when her expected first mission turns into something else entirely she attempts to find out what’s going on and he enigmatically responds ‘You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, let’s just keep an eye on the time’.
Regarding the rest of the cast, this is arguably one of del Toro’s best performances, and probably the best work he has delivered since Steven Soderbergh’s epic two-parter Che. The equally-charismatic Brolin delivers a solid turn and is joined in this regard by Daniel Kaluuya, who UK viewers may remember as Parking Patewayo in Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s sketch show Harry And Paul; Sicario is his big Hollywood break and he manages to grab the opportunity well. It’s a surprise when the film all but leaves Blunt’s character during the final act and turns at a key moment to one of these male actors, turning them briefly into a kind of surrogate protagonist, but I enjoyed this unexpected direction even though it’s the film’s sole action sequence that you’d expect to see in any old genre piece. During this brutal sequence a smidgen of credence is given to the claim made by cartel boss Alarcon (Julio Cedillo) that both sides in this war as as bad as each other, but it’s a strange move at such a crucial point, even if it serves to explain the title’s reference to a ‘hitman’.
Sicario is smartly edited by Joe Walker, who ensures that the punchier moments really do punch, while minimalist electronica artist Jóhann Jóhannsson delivers a suitably moody, atmospheric soundtrack (following up his Oscar-nominated work on The Theory Of Everything). Deakins deserves and gets another mention in this review for returning to locations similar to or the same as the ones previously shot for No Country For Old Men and delivering something entirely different, yet no less deserving of praise. There’s so much visually to admire here: silhouetted soldiers entering a tunnel as the sun sets, aeroplane shadows rolling over the barren landscape, creative use of car window frames and mirrors, transitional shots of dust particles in the light and much, much more; it’s a film that will please the aesthetes no end. I’m not convinced that Sicario tells those of us observing from afar anything new about the conflict or its associated problems – cartels are ruthless, those at the bottom of the food chain on either side suffer and the American government forces pay scant regard to the laws that supposedly bind them seem to be the main and obvious messages – but purely in terms of thrilling action and suspense it’s well worth seeing and the performances and cinematography are highlights.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve.
Written by: Taylor Sheridan.
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benecio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal, Maximiliano Hernández.
Cinematography: Roger Deakins.
Editing: Joe Walker.
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Running Time: 121 minutes.