Denis Villeneuve strove for excellence with 2013’s Prisoners and fell short by overstuffing the narrative. Luckily, his 2015 film Sicario seems a more focused endeavour and manages to tell its story without so many regrettable sidetracks. The French-Canadian works again with cinematographer Roger Deakins, too, so things look damn sharp.
Featuring a screenplay by Taylor Sheridan, Sicario is a thundering thriller with explosions of raw violence and plenty of intrigue. It plays like an espionage picture run through the ringer of political corruption, although it is tilted remarkably to the American side of the perpetual and impossible War on Drugs. This puts a tiny dent in the proceedings, but it also falls in line with Villeneuve’s moral opacity.
Sicario introduces FBI agent Kate Macer as she’s on a raid of suspected kidnappers in Arizona. A bomb goes off and kills some agents and the protagonist is asked to volunteer for a special team to track down the cartel boss responsible for the explosion. She signs up and works under Special Activities Division officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin).
And before anyone can ask for the keys to the cartel, Kate is off to Mexico on a series of missions designed to disrupt the drug gangs. Matt’s partner Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) is also along for the ride, but Kate has some suspicions. After a few incidents, like a border shootout and a little light torture, Kate finds that she’s still in the dark about the nature of the group and its endgame.
Sicario works best when it attaches the audience to Kate and allows for a little stumbling through the shadows. Its lack of explicit exposition ensures that the viewer is drowning in the mess, which makes Blunt’s job all the more important. She has to act as proxy, not just a self-involved character, and that presents its own challenges.
Happily, Blunt is more than up for the task. She dives in to the role and is more than believable as the shattered, righteous Macer. The movie doesn’t make much of gender politics, but it’s clear she’s earned her place in the land of the wolves – even if some don’t believe it. Blunt is focused, communicating with her eyes and expressions more than her words.
Of course, Macer doesn’t come out of Sicario intact. The moral zigzags are difficult to keep up with, especially if one plans on maintaining some semblance of honour. Kate attempts to preserve her iron focus on what’s right, but as she guides the audience through the miserable tunnels of ambiguity she can’t help but lose her grip. Cynicism sneaks in the back door, as it generally does.
And that’s where Villeneuve’s focus comes back to bear fruit. As with Prisoners, he leans on characters willing to do whatever it takes to meet their goals. In this instance, del Toro’s Alejandro is the one cursed with a particular history. He’s the one ready to cross lines, cross borders, cross hearts. The movie’s final moments reveal just how far he’s willing to go.
But rather than obsess over anyone’s lack of moral direction, Sicario prefers to live in the vagueness. It doesn’t cast one as right or wrong. It casts the world as an eye for an eye, as though one vicious turn earns another by sheer force of honest will. Alejandro commands order in the land of the wolves, so to speak. It’s a tentative, edgy form of control. It’s wrong in every way, yet what are the choices?
Deakins highlights this with his beautiful and haunting cinematography, capturing wide vistas of futility along with close-quarters violence. Each extreme carries its own graceful blood, like how the tension at the border reaches nearly operatic levels or the night sky turns into a cloak of peril in the blink of an eye.
Sicario is a top-drawer thriller. It tells its story well and with efficiency. It buffs down the sharper edges to shades of doubt, refusing to lay claim to any sure path of virtue. Villeneuve’s picture instead lives in the avenues and alleyways between the thoroughfares, holding fast to the necessity of misery as he covers one of the most hopeless storylines imaginable.