Sicario: Film Review
Cast: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Jon Bernthal,
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Seared in unease, blasted in a sense of dread and swept up in suspense, director Denis Villeneuve continues his cinematic path to darkness with Sicario, a blistering drug cartel drama that also once again indulges his predilection for bodies within walls stories.
In themes that seem remarkably redolent of this year's NZIFF doco Cartel Land (even down to one of the Mexicans who bears more than a passing resemblance to Dr Jose Mireles), Emily Blunt plays Kate Macer, an FBI field agent who's co-opted to a task force aimed at cracking the cartels whose insidious grip is growing on both sides of the border.
Headed up by Josh Brolin's Matt and the equally enigmatic Alejandre (a practically-wolf-like Benicio del Toro) Kate finds answers to her questions not forthcoming and her faith tested as the operation continues.
To say more about Sicario (the Mexican word for hitman) is to betray its sense of unease and its paranoia that anyone is a potential target or perpetrator.
As previously demonstrated in earlier flicks, Incendies, Enemy and Prisoners, Villeneuve has a way of seriously ramping up the unease and atmospherics and in this latest, he makes no effort to ease that off, constructing sequences that are nerve-jangling to say the least. As the sense of uncertainty increases, a crashing, low-rumbling and dissonant Johann Johannson score adds to the atmospherics substantially and pushes you further to the edge of your seat.
If a Mexican based sub-plot about a man named Silvio is less successful than it should be (and reminiscent of the story of the American on the border that swirls around in Cartel Land), Blunt's eager agent, who's clearly out of her depth given the grand scale of events and the reach of the cartels more than makes up for it in the initial stages of Sicario. Her place in wider scheme of things and the jurisdictional issues and politics is never overplayed but is all the more powerful for it. Though, admittedly, towards the back half of the film, she seems to be a little underwritten and drifts disappointingly away in the final mix.
However, it's del Toro's almost muted and dialled down performance as Alejandro that remains in the mind long after the lights have gone up. A coiled and be-suited del Toro even utters at one point "This is a land of wolves now" with no hint of irony or sense of which side he's on. However, with his semi-closed eyes and on-point performance, and with the constant guessing as to his motives, he, along with Brolin's enigmatically charismatic turn propel the central mystery as we're kept in the dark as much as Emily Blunt's character is.
Villeneuve and his script-writer Taylor Sheridan delight in holding their cards close to their collective chests, with answers only forthcoming in a shocking final third-act denouement that rings as true as it does horrific. Using some stunning aerial vistas and location shots of the deserts and roads as well as ramping up the tension (one border crossing is particularly nerve-wracking), the pair have concocted a slick tale that never stops to lecture merely demonstrate how out of depth some people are as they seek revenge - and it also stops short of delivering commentary on what is, no doubt, an escalating and insidiously growing problem with the war on drugs and the cartels on the borders.
Gripping and thrilling, the intensity of the occasionally bleak but intoxicating Sicario is nigh-on asphyxiating from beginning to end. It's unrelenting in its release as it inveigles its way under your skin and, thanks to its stunning execution, it's one of the best of the year.