Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernandez, Victor Garber, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Max Trujillo, Bernardo P. Saracino, Julio Cedillo
Runtime: 2 hrs 1 min
Rating: NC-16 (Coarse Language and Violence)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Official Website: http://www.sicariofilm.com
Opening Day: 17 September 2015
Synopsis: In Mexico, SICARIO means hitman. In the lawless border area stretching between the U.S. and Mexico, an idealistic FBI agent [Emily Blunt] is enlisted by an elite government task force official [Josh Brolin] to aid in the escalating war against drugs. Led by an enigmatic consultant with a questionable past [Benicio Del Toro], the team sets out on a clandestine journey forcing Kate to question everything that she believes in order to survive.
Denis Villeneuve isn’t the first to make a film about the cross-border war against the Mexican drug trade, but his ‘Sicario’ is quite possibly one of the most gripping ones we’ve seen on the subject. To underscore just how entrenched the issue lies, it begins not directly across the border but in suburban Arizona, where an FBI team led by field agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) are shocked to find dozens of rotting corpses hidden behind the drywall of a nondescript one-storey house which they have been sent to retrieve a kidnapped victim. The shed outside the house also happens to be booby-trapped, and blows apart shortly after the FBI team has concluded their raid.
Immediately after, Kate is presented with the opportunity to catch the guys across the border really responsible for the tragedy. This is Kate’s story, who agrees to join a black-ops operation led by a DOJ contractor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) on an excursion to El Paso to escort a high-ranking cartel boss (Bernardo Saracino) back across the border for interrogation. Matt expects that their contingent will be ambushed while crossing the bridge, so he’s brought a whole army of burly military men with him, but what intrigues Kate is the stoic, solemn Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a former Mexican prosecutor who is now officially enlisted as an advisor.
As Kate (and us) will soon discover, she is way out of her depth. Her introduction to El Paso includes the sight of bodies, naked and decapitated, hung from overpasses. A border firefight in dense traffic leaves more than a half-dozen people dead. With absolutely no hint of compunction, Matt wetworks the man they had brought over the border for information that would illuminate just how the cartel has been operating. On her night off back in Phoenix, she is almost choked to death by a local sheriff who has been paid off by the cartels. And all the while, Matt refuses to give her a straight answer just what exactly their mission is – the only hint she gets is from Alejandro, who says cryptically, “Nothing will make sense to you Americans and you will doubt everything we do, but in the end you will say, those guys were right.”
Kate is our lens into a world of moral turpitude that doesn’t possess neat, clean or straight-forward answers to the questions it poses. At what cost and by what means should the war on drugs be counted on and fought with? Is it even realistic to expect that the narcotics trade can be wiped out by eliminating the heads of the cartels? Or have we reached the point where the only practical solution is to gain control of the entire trade? Actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan paints a morally cynical picture of the real-life war and presents a solution that, while ethically questionable, remains a compelling one that deserves debate and scrutiny.
Trading scope for intimacy, Sheridan fashions an intense character study of Kate, the tough but idealistic agent forced to find her place amidst a disorientating reality awash with ambiguity. And just as Jessica Chastain did in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, Emily Blunt delivers a powerful gender-free performance that mixes confidence, bewilderment and vulnerability. There is no attempt to emphasise how she is one female in an alpha-male dominated world, and for that matter is her character given any backstory for us to empathise with; rather, it assumes that no one, whether male or female, would be any less helpless or disconcerted against the throes of the drug war.
Blunt’s complement is twofold – one, the smarmy swagger of Brolin’s DOJ contractor; and two, the quiet menace of Del Toro’s ‘sicario’. Yes, the latter is who the title refers to, and easily the most intimidating character of the lot – not just because he seems to be the most uncompromising one of them all, but also because his motives are shrouded in mystery right till the very finish. Though Blunt’s Law School-graduate partner (Daniel Kaluuya) does pop up from time to time to help her find centre and sanity, this is essentially a three-hander between Blunt, Brolin and Del Toro, and the masterful acting from all three pros is gripping to watch in itself.
That’s not to dismiss Villeneuve’s cinematic style, which is clear, assured and riveting. Keeping the pace blisteringly suspenseful, Villeneuve never misses a beat driving the character beats through a series of slick setpieces, moving effortlessly from a tense opening raid to a thrilling shootout on the Mexican-American border and finally to a night-time stealth operation filmed in night and thermal vision. Reuniting with his ‘Prisoners’ cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve switches between vast aerial canvasses of the desert countryside to carefully framed close-ups in a way that only the immensely light-dark attuned Deakins can to make the film as a whole visually arresting.
Even though its subject isn’t new, ‘Sicario’ is still a breathless piece of genre entertainment that renews Villeneuve’s credibility as one of the foremost directors in Hollywood today. Villeneuve navigates the complex political realities of the Mexican drug trade and its actors with clarity and skill, never simplifying the difficulties, opacities and trade-offs involved. Those familiar with his earlier works such as ‘Incendies’ and ‘Prisoners’ will probably recognise this as his most commercial work to date, one that balances its ethical conundrums with sheer white-knuckle action. Indeed, it is both cerebral and visceral, smart and entertaining in equal measure.
(Gripping, exciting and provocative, Denis Villeneuve’s take on the Mexican drug trade is an uncompromising character study that pulses with white-knuckle suspense)
Review by Gabriel Chong