Sicario: Building Tension, by Rudie Obias
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve quickly made a name for himself with mainstream-arthouse audiences with a pair of films, Prisoners and Enemy, that were released in the fall of 2013 and early 2014, respectively. Hollywood has taken notice of his talent, as Villeneuve is set to take on a big film franchise with the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. He’s made his mark as a filmmaker who takes a patient approach to thriller material, and his latest, Sicario, sees him continue to work with A-list talent in this unusual mold.
Sicario follows Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), an idealistic FBI agent determined to put an end to the illegal drug trade. The film opens with an intense bust in a house in an Arizona suburb that a Mexican cartel uses for drug distribution. Macer catches the eye of government higher-ups after a heroic seizure and is recruited for a special operation with brash CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) in command. He puts together an elite force to cross the Mexican border and bring a notorious drug kingpin out of hiding. Graver also brings on Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), a wildcard government agent hell bent on revenge after said drug kingpin murdered his family. Of course nothing could go wrong with a guy like Alejandro on the team, right?
As the film unfolds, we get a clear impression that everything is not what it appears to be; Macer goes from elite to completely out of her depth, Graver goes from crude to level-headed, and Alejandro goes from cruel to compassionate throughout Sicario’s running time. This illustrates one of the film’s themes of perspective and clarity, which is as complex as the War on Drugs.
Denis Villeneuve takes a lot of cues from director Michael Mann, as the film is definitely more concerned with procedure and deep character introspection, rather than thrilling action scenes, as the trailers or advertisements might lead on. Sicario is a much slower film than that, which is quite rewarding to understand the greater theme of the futility of the War on Drugs. However, Sicario’s loose structure catches up with its story when a subplot with a corrupt Mexican police officer garners little narrative or thematic payoff.
The film certainly has the sheen and gloss of a high-class production with cinematographer Roger Deakins behind the camera and film composer Jóhann Jóhannsson creating a haunting and unsettling score, which clues in the audience on Sicario’s motives. Almost everything about Sicario is working at a high level, especially the script, which bounces back-and-forth from the three leads’ perspectives without calling attention to itself. It really brings the morality of its characters’ actions on to the audience themselves with the film’s gripping third act. The film builds up to a nightvision-induced raid of the Mexican border via a series of secret underground tunnels that the cartels use to run drugs into and out of the United States. The sequence is an intense nail biter that is worth the price of admission, but ends in a hideous and dark way.
Sicario looks to be introducing even wider audiences to Denis Villeneuve, but it’s also a film that will leave them uneasy and unsettled.