Denis Villeneuve is an extraordinary director, just look at his body of work, and this film is no exception. Sicario is a brilliant thriller based around the US government’s operations to take down Mexican drug cartels that will keep your eyes fixed on the screen.
As the film is told from the perspective of Emily Blunt’s character, Kate, and she is the audience’s way into the story, the audience is left in the dark about the details of the mission as much of the key information is withheld from Kate. The film doesn’t spoonfeed you, instead it gives you various pieces of the puzzle and leaves it up to you to place them together. In a way reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat, the film introduces you to characters and their lives before you have any understanding of their purpose in the story, allowing you to understand the characters before you understand their reason for being in the narrative. These different mysteries keep you engaged, captivated as you try to figure out what is happening, and even by the time the credits roll on your first viewing, everything is still not entirely clear, nor does it need to be. This complicated interweaving warrants repeat viewings and makes it a film that will hold up upon watching it again and again.
The characters are the audience’s main source of moral conflict and ambiguity as disagreements and complicated character relationships define the moral struggle at the heart of the story. Whilst a drug war is raging around them, the film is largely focused on the strength and weaknesses of characters’ principles when faced with procedural dillemmas. Blunt is excellent, playing Kate with a subtle strength and determination that begins to fade away as the character is broken down over the course of the mission. She brings a humanity to the character, portraying her vulnerabilities as well as her strengths, losing herself in the character. She is supported by a brilliant turn from Benicio Del Toro as the mysterious Alejandro, a character whose position in the story and the mission is completely unknown, who fluctuates between being trusted by the audience, and eliciting their suspicion. His character is perhaps the most interesting in the story, with character twists revealed as the story progresses. The moments between these actors in silence are gripping as their complex and changing relationship is communicated fully, even without dialogue. They are surrounded by a strong supporting cast including a good turn by Josh Brolin, who help to flesh out their world and make it seem all the more real and dangerous.
The film contains some excellent action set pieces, some of the best of the year. They are gripping ,tense and unnerving due to Kate’s inexperience in the situations, and the questioning of the rules of engagement. A particularly brilliant sequence set in the midst of a traffic jam is especially enthralling due to the uncertainty of the situation and the forewarned danger. The opening is fantastic too, centering on a raid of a house suspected to be containing hostages, which results in a gruesome, deadly find. It is a brilliant introduction to the characters and to their way of working, as well as setting the stakes high for the rest of the film. This part, and some other moments in the film, are hard to stomach as the camera captures the graphic and gory images, unflinchingly. This serves to heighten the film’s atmosphere, not only through the repulsiveness of what is being shown, but by placing the story in a world with very real dangers, all of which adds to the extraordinary sense of reality captured in the film.
The film is shot beautifully, of course, by Roger Deakins who will no doubt get his 13th Oscar nomination for this film. The images are stunning and enthralling, capturing the atmosphere and essence of each scene. The lighting and framing are exquisite, absorbing you into the chilling world of Sicario.
Villeneuve is in total control, crafting a great film that weaves a thrilling story of terror, tension and twists. He weaves together complex character relationships with a twisting, ambiguous plot, managing to keep the audience completely engaged and interested , despite keeping them, and his principal character, just outside of the loop. He magnificently builds tension throughout the film, to a point where the film’s primary climax feels perhaps not as heightened as it has earned to be, seeming to play out in a quieter, briefer way than you may expect. It also briefly, but necessarily, shifts perspectives for the first time in the film, a slightly jarring decision. However, the film then proceeds to finish with an excellent ending where suspicions of Kate’s purpose in the story are either confirmed or put to rest, and the strength of her character is called into question. The final act of the film ends it on a perfect note, summing up the entire film.
Villeneuve has crafted a brilliant, complex thriller that requires its audience’s attention. Despite an arguable slight derailment in the film’s climax, this is a gripping thriller that will no doubt prove more fruitful upon repeat viewings.