by Philip Price
There is something exceptionally startling about director Denis Villeneuve's approach to his rather subtle character examinations. Neither “Prisoners” or “Enemy” did anything to necessarily expand our minds to the way we work as humans, but they called often dismissed thoughts and qualities to the surface. With his latest, “Sicario,” the director is once again examining the human condition under the most stringent of circumstances and once again he puts our nerves through the ringer. Having more than enjoyed both of Villeneuve's previous studio efforts (I've yet to see “Incendies,” but clearly need to) and anticipating his latest if not based on his previous work, but for the trio of stellar actors he recruited to execute this feature I walked away from “Sicario” with a stunned respect for how what was being said was in fact stated. Brutal beyond measure, unflinching to a fault and featuring an extremely serious tone balanced by a slight comedic performance from Josh Brolin, Vileneuve has crafted a film that is not wholly concerned with plot as much as it is the examination of the complexities of these people who are trapped in a world convoluted beyond their comprehension that only continues to go around in circles. “Sicario” is by no means a masterpiece of the genre as it does tend to lose some of its steam in its middle section, but it more than makes up for it with a chilling conclusion and a tension throughout that is something akin to unshakable.
We are first introduced to young FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who has apparently shot up the ranks and impressed a lot of people along the way. In a sense though, she is doing little more than busy work tracking down folks believed to be kidnapped by the cartel. Busy work in the sense she isn't getting to the bottom of who the people doing the kidnappings are and on top of that is making very little impact on the state of the drug war in the streets. Accompanied by her partner and only apparent friend, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), the two (well, mostly Kate) are recruited by Matt (Brolin) to help with a vague operation concerning the capture of a major cartel boss. Also in on the action is Matt's right hand man Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) who has an even vaguer agenda. Led by Matt and his unconventional (read amoral) ways Kate becomes entrenched in a game she isn't sure she's willing to play.
In reading the synopsis one notices they use the word "idealistic" to describe Blunt's character and that would be accurate, for the most part. Sure, Kate might be unrealistic in her expectations of how clean her dealings with some very dirty people might be, but I wouldn't call her naive by any means. What is most interesting about “Sicario” (and I've never watched “Sons of Anarchy,” with which writer Taylor Sheridan was heavily involved so I can't say if this is a pattern) is that it gives us this set of protagonists who we naturally assume we can rely on and even if they weren't the "good guys" the film would position it to where we root for them, but while we like both Kate and Reggie we can't help but feel they don't know what's best for them. Given what both of these characters have seen in the line of duty we know they understand there is cause for the rules to be followed and for things to be done a certain way so that they cover their ass while simultaneously looking out for the best interests of those they're attempting to protect, but that is a purely idealistic world Matt and Alejandro simply can't abide by. One would think Kate and Reggie might come to understand why such means are necessary, but not so much. There is the clear sense that Matt and Alejandro know what they're doing and know how to expertly craft whatever plan is necessary to reach their end goal even if it doesn't fall within a certain set of guidelines. It is the clashing of these two ideologies that gives the movie it's thesis with the remainder of the film demonstrating how this idea of peace can never really be achieved even when people are fighting for the same cause.
The idea Villeneuve was able to craft a mind trip around this rather standard tale of drug investigation elevates “Sicario” to another level in terms of viewing experience. His keen eye for precision in his visual style is ever present and the way in which he studies his subjects without ever seeming pretentious in his camera work is admirable. Many directors tend to take the "Terrence Malick approach" when it comes to hovering around their subjects hoping to catch every single facial tick, but Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins hold steady with their shots making them as unflinching as the faces of these merciless men in which Blunt is reluctantly learning from. The entire picture has a certain epic quality to the visual approach. There is a shot near the climax of the film where silhouettes of soldiers dressed in full military garb and carrying guns walk through a field into the Arizona sunset and it is literally jaw-dropping. Seriously, I had to pick mine up off the floor after sitting back in awe of how immersive it was.
Speaking of Villeneuve's subjects it goes without saying that the leading three performances are nothing short of solid, but all three contribute in such varying but necessary ways that they elevate the picture even further from its genre confinements. Blunt is terrific in her conflicted state playing Kate as a woman prone to disappointments, but trying her damnedest to make her job the one area of her life where she doesn't let herself down. Brolin feels more at home here than he has in the last few years (minus his small, but terrific turn in “Inherent Vice” last year) infusing Matt with what seem to be similar to his own sensibilities and owning the screen every time he's on it because of that honesty. The real stand-out though is Del Toro who is absolutely chilling. Without going into too much detail there is a scene towards the end of the film where Del Toro's Alejandro is presented with an opportunity and though it seems clear he already knows what he is going to do the moment he walks into the room, we don't. The audience, while allowing themselves to trust these people, still don't know what to expect from them and in this particular scene Del Toro's tone and preciseness of concentrated rage inhabits your bones. Given there is so much to take away from “Sicario” there is little to complain about and likely an abundance of things I haven't touched on that will only become more apparent and make the experience of watching the film all the more enthralling on future viewings. “Sicario” is a movie for the mind with just enough action and plenty of credible tension to satisfy what we think we need in order to fill our crime movie quota.