Review: Sicario

Director Denis Villeneuve has never been averse to making films about dark subject matter. Two of his previous films, Enemy (one of my favorites) and Prisoners, weren’t just films that dove head first into serious subjects; they were also two of the best thrillers in recent years.

Villeneuve is back with Sicario – a thriller about an FBI agent assigned to a special task force in search of a drug lord in Mexico.

After Agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) finds dozens of bodies buried in the walls of a home in Arizona, she’s recruited into a special task force by a shadowy figure named Graver (Josh Brolin) – a man who’s as ambiguous about what he’s doing as he is assertive with his actions. Graver wants Kate’s help to find the man responsible for the bodies at the house and the explosion that killed two agents.  Graver is accompanied by a shady looking man who’s only known as Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Alejandro doesn’t say much, but when he does talk people should listen.

Kate’s by-the-book mentality is challenged once she realizes fighting drug lords in Mexico isn’t cops vs. criminals, it’s wolves vs. wolves and the badder pack of wolves are the ones who win.

Sicario will get a lot of comparisons to 2000’s Traffic. Both films deal with the U.S and Mexico’s “tug-of-drug war” across the border, and the innocent /not so innocent people caught in the middle.  With Traffic, you had an all-star cast,  but Sicario relies on its three leads, Blunt, Brolin, and Del Toro to carry the film. The broader scope of drugs and their influence in Traffic is a more traditional tale. Sicario is a gritty personal journey of sacrifice and compromise.

The best part of Sicario, and the thing that separates the two movies, are its main characters. The plot doesn’t give a lot of background as to who they are, but leads have such good chemistry, it doesn’t matter.  As Matt Oakes pointed out, Kate represents the audience in the film. The way her character is written gives the story a more intimate feel than most thrillers.  There’s an intense convoy sequence in the first act and Kate unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of a shootout. When the audience gets a chance to catch their breath and ask what’s going on, almost on cue, a startled Kate says, “What the (expletive) is going on?” Kate is as confused as the audience is. As she learns more about her partners and their true intentions, the audience learns as well. It’s like falling down a drug war rabbit hole together.

Brolin is fantastic as a mysterious government consultant who does what he wants and answers all of Kate’s questions like a politician. Where Kate is struggling to find some understanding, Graver struts around with confidence because he knows exactly what’s happening. He even has as a smile like he’s hiding an extra card up his sleeve at a poker game.

Benicio Del Toro steals the show as Alejandro. Alejandro was once a prosecutor, but how he ended up as part of Graver’s team is unclear – why he’s on his team is not.  It’s also unclear if Kate is safe around Alejandro. Is he a good guy? Is he any better than the people they’re chasing? One of Alejandro’s best scenes is when he gets uncomfortably close to a man and gives him a violent wet willy. Yes, a wet willy.

Sicario is as brilliant as Villeneuve’s previous films. Its compelling storytelling attached to beautiful filmmaking.  The fantastic score gives a nervous energy and a heightened sense of urgency to every scene. The opening 20 minutes is probably the best opening of any film in recent years and that’s followed up by an exceptional third act. It’s violent, unapologetic portrayal of a war that’s happening on our borders every day. I expect to hear from Sicario again come Oscar season.

Grade: A