Sicario film review Emily Blunt Daniel KaluuyaYear: 2015
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer(s): Taylor Sheridan
Region of Origin: US
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 121 mins

Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent is enlisted by an elected government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico. (Source)

Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario doesn’t allow us to be a bystander – if you come at it thinking you can just sit back and enjoy, you’re wrong – it’ll chew you up and spit you out. At the very least, it’s a compelling crime drama with unrelenting tension; what separates it from most films of its ilk however, is the way that Villeneuve and scriptwriter Taylor Sheridan deliver a nuanced take on the hopelessly twisty Mexican drug wars. Like real life, there’s no easy solution to this rampant problem, nor does the film truly provide one. Instead we get a layered dissection of the ambiguity that separates and balances good and evil. Contrasting the accessibility of a blockbuster thriller with the weighty implications of the arthouse, Villeneuve’s created a unflinchingly dark morality tale, one that doesn’t pull any punches and highlights the chaos that lies just beyond our blissful, at times purposefully ignorant purview.

After a botched raid involving rotting, mutilated corpses and a battering ram, FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) comes into contact with a DOD consultant named Matt (Josh Brolin). If Kate will volunteer, he promises to give her a real shot at combatting the Mexican drug wars which are spilling into her jursdiction. After hesitantly accepting, Kate is thrust into an exceedingly complex web of deception and brutality, with no clear sign of understanding or even a way out. Clinging to her idealism and true desire to set things right, the by-the-book Kate must learn to survive in a land of wolves.

How do you solve a problem if you don’t even know what the question is? It’s this view on the story’s central conflict that makes Villeneuve’s film so fascinating, presenting it as a breathtaking cinematic descent into hell. The deeper we go, the more nightmarish it gets, but never for the sake of shock, instead illustrating the war on drugs as a savage mobius strip that thrives on ordered chaos, supply and demand. In the hands of any other writer or director, a film like this would go from one action set piece to another. Instead, there’s a weight to everything, with humanity in the balance and poetic contrasts that are dark, yet too urgent to ignore. This is a thriller that counts the cost of the tragedy on display and never forgets that life and death matter, even in the face of grim inevitability.

Sicario film review Emily Blunt Josh Brolin Benicio del ToroIn addition to the story’s focused themes, the film still manages to deliver two of the most intense sequences of the year. Without spoiling things, one involves an extended excursion across the border and into Juarez, while another involves thermal photography against the pitch black darkness of night. As a director that hasn’t really done much action before, Villeneuve’s direction is as taught and tight as it gets, utilizing stunning photography from Roger Deakins to get both our minds and hearts racing as his characters face insurmountable odds psychologically as well as physically. It’s the synergy of those two things that makes everything matter and allows the film to really cut deep.

Even if the film didn’t already have so much going for it, there are three incredible performances at its core. Emily Blunt as the idealistic Kate Macer plays a modern heroine who must confront her integrity and the impossible reality of her situation. She’s in a tough spot, and Blunt allows the character to be more than just our audience surrogate, but also a relatable cipher that calls us out and makes us complicit in her journey. She’s far from a cartoony archetype thanks to Blunt’s simultaneous strength and fragility, but also a fierce character clinging on to what she believes is right. Benicio Del Toro gets the second most play in the film as the mysterious, shady Alejandro. This is one of his best performances ever, and he is the personification of what the entire film is about, challenging our allegiances through an ambiguous, primal mix of opposing character traits. Josh Brolin’s Matt, provides a lot of the film’s levity, but it comes with an undeniable dark side. There’s a sinister slant that contrasts with his nonchalance about the entire ordeal that’s a bit creepy and keeps things always on edge. Together, all three of these performances ensure that we’re always glued to the screen, amidst the mounting tension and the inevitable bloodshed.

Simply put, Sicario isn’t just one of the most intense experiences of the entire year, it’s also of one the year’s best, period. Villeneuve’s thriller is on a league of its own, proving that action films can go deeper than empty thrills to explore the consequence and the ideas behind the chaos. My best advice to you: see this and don’t forget to breathe; focused and fully formed on every level, it’s an unforgettable revelation of the human darkness that lies at the fringe of everything we hold dear.