Seldom one to shy away from bleak subject matters, Denis Villeneuve, the director of Insendies, Enemy and Prisoners explores the bloody war between the US government and Mexican drug cartels in Sicario. Taking place on the border between Arizona and Juarez, the story itself, written by Taylor Sheridan, seems to occupy a disturbing twilight zone where justice and humanity are in dangerously short supply.
Emily Blunt, still combat ready from her role in last year’s Edge Of Tomorrow, stars as Kate, an FBI agent who heads up a kidnap response team in America’s south. During a rescue attempt in a Phoenix suburb, Kate’s team stumble on the murderous activity of a cartel led by one Manuel Diaz – a drug boss the US government are keen to apprehend.
Thereafter, Kate joins a special unit which plans to bring Diaz down – though their methods are far from by the book. Kate and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) soon wind up south of the border and in unfamiliar, morally murky waters. Matt (Josh Brolin) has an insincere smile that doesn’t quite meet his eyes, while the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) bears the cold expression of someone who’s hurt so many people that his senses have gone numb.
As Matt and Alejandro lead Kate further into cartel-controlled territory, the darker events become, and Kate realises too late that she’s far, far out of her depth.
There’s an unsettling, alien quality to Villeneuve’s film, lensed by esteemed cinematographer Roger Deakins. As in Enemy and Prisoners, (the latter beingVilleneuve’s previous collaboration with Deakins) familiar landscapes look somehow strange and frightening. The dust falling against a curtain becomes a portent of something horrible. An aerial shot of the Mexican desert becomes a strange and hostile planet. Sicario’s opening is a hackle-raising blitzkrieg of fast cuts and insistent sound, as Deakins’s camera following Kate’s team as it breaches an apparently ordinary house.
Villeneuve has an eye for detail and a metronomic sense of rhythm, the observation of some seemingly incidental moment giving way to the violent and unexpected. Sicario has some extraordinary action and suspense set-pieces, and there’s the sense that Villeneuve most enjoys the planning and execution of long stretches of dread: a nerve-rattling stand-off in a traffic jam on the Mexican border. A shoot-out in a dark tunnel, filmed with night vision and thermal imaging cameras that give it a stark and unearthly feel.
Somewhere in the middle of the story, the tension unspools as Kate meets brick wall after brick wall of secrecy. What are Matt and Alejandro up to? Why do they even want Kate and her sidekick on their side if she’s only required to stand by the sidelines as their squad of heavily-armed attack dogs do their worst? Those questions are ultimately answered, but only after long stretches where Kate – and by extension the drama – begins to spin its wheels.
It must be said, however, that the acting is excellent. Blunt is believably tough as Kate, and we can believe she’s an agent that’s “been kicking down doors since day one”. But the film’s roundly stolen from under everybody’s noses by Benicio del Toro, who’s nothing short of terrifying as Alejandro. A man of uncertain allegiance, he’s the kind of character whose initial air of menace is merely a cover for even greater reservoirs of cruelty. If Sicario is Denis Villeneuve’s A Touch Of Evil, del Toro is its Orson Welles.
As a cinematic portrait of real-world tensions between cartels and government agencies, Sicario offers a bleak, dystopian perspective. At its blackest points, Kate’s role in the movie snaps into focus: she’s the one hint of idealism and morality in a perpetual war where all boundaries are shattered. As one character says to Kate, “You’re not a wolf, and this is the land of wolves now.”
Slackening though it does in the mid-point – and kicked back into life through a not-entirely-convincing plot contrivance – Sicario is nevertheless another absorbing, unsettling piece of filmmaking from Villeneuve. In Prisoners, he explored a dark corner of America’s suburbia. In Enemy, he explored the inner life of an ordinary man and dredged up hidden reservoirs of pent-up fear and resentment. Sicario lacks the surrealism of Enemy and the more mainstream air of tension of Prisoners, but something equally intense, disturbing and beastly pulsates through this, perhaps Villeneuve’s bleakest film yet.
Sicario is out in UK cinemas on the 8th October.
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