Director: Denis Villeneuve
Script: Taylor Sheridan
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Score: Johan Johannsson
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya, John Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, Victor Garber, Maximiliano Hernandez, Bernardo P. Saracino, Julio Cedillo
Rated R: for strong violence, grisly images, harsh language
Runtime: 121 minutes
“Nothing will make sense to your American ears…and you will doubt everything we do.
But in the end, you will understand.”
THIS REVIEW IS SPOILER FREE
As a fan of suspense, action, thriller, mystery fare from movies/television/books, I was feeling a bit let down from this past summer’s second season of True Detective. Maybe Johnny Depp’s anticipated revisit to the crime/drama genre since 1997’s Donnie Brasco via Black Mass would cure my craving? No dice. Well, if you felt the same way as me, don’t fret. As director Denis Villeneuve, cinematographer Roger Deakins, composer Johan Johannsson, the Beautiful Blunt paired with the oldest “Goonie” and some guy named Benicio del Toro has “got your six” covered with Sicario.
A very well crafted, very well acted, very…well, damn near everything to be honest: neo-western action, suspense, thriller, horror (yeah horror!) crime drama epic mixtape of a movie. One that worked wonders in simultaneously keeping me engaged with it’s simple (yet still full of surprises) narrative, laughing along with it’s brief moments of gallows humor levity, whilst clenching my armrests during it’s intense/detailed action pieces. And overall, just basically freaking the hell out of me quite often during it’s running time.
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is a divorced, sort of ex-smoker, by the book FBI drug & kidnapping task force agent, who can wear the same bra and t-shirt for a week and still look fantastic (which I’m more than fine with since my crush on the Beautiful Blunt is everlasting, I digress). When a tactical raid in suburb of Chandler, Arizona for a case Macer’s unit has been working on goes F.U.B.A.R., a whole new world of crime and oppressive, brutal violence opens up to the unsullied and idealistic eyes of Kate. In light of these events, Macer is then recruited by the slipper wearing, flirty and flippant D.E.A / Department of Defense middle man Matt Graver (a very good Josh Brolin). Who convinces Macer that joining him for an inter-agency operation in El Paso will get to the heart of the cartel-related violence that keeps bleeding into the Southwestern states.
She agrees to join Graver’s team much to her friend and FBI partner Reggie’s (Black Mirror’s Daniel Kaluuya, also very good) dismay. Reggie also studied law and did some tours in Afghanistan, so he’s leery of the slick speaking Graver at first glance. Having worked with folks like him overseas, trust is not a currency these types use to get what they want, but Kate feels that she needs to see how far this goes, and if her involvement can make any difference, she’s down for the sickness. Then the layers of the onion start to peel back slowly as Macer notices the clout Graver flashes, along with his very vague answers to her questions about the operation. “What? The bureau doesn’t offer travel accommodations like this.” – Graver snorts as he flips off his sandals and stretches out to nap across the sofa of his private Gulfstream 650 jet. As the shadow of the G6 pans across the southwest, Rock star- cinematographer Roger Deakins captures some awesome shots of the arid landscape, from Arizona to “Teh-Hass”… he is also prepping the viewers for the drone-like, surveillance-, voyeuristic experience of the film. Which he and Villaneuve call back to later on during some key set pieces of Sicario.
Here we also get Kate’s introduction to Graver’s assistant. A former prosecutor named Alejandro – played by del Toro…who suffice to say is very, very good in this role. To me, Benicio plays like three parts in this film…and he does it mostly using just his eyes, his physical presence, and very little dialogue. A combination of a mystery man with a heart of gold (okay maybe not gold, bronze perhaps?), Solid Snake, and Baba Yaga if that makes any sense. I think he surpasses his Oscar winning efforts of 15 years ago from Soderbergh’s earlier drug cartel cinema cousin, 2000’s Traffic. He does this thing with his body…which is just, well, you’ll know what I’m talking about if you see the movie.
Once Kate (sort of) makes the acquaintance of Alejandro, she then gets settled in with Graver’s cohorts and the first “tree shaking” mission. “Oops, did I forget to mention that this op isn’t taking place in El Paso by the way?” – Graver reveals to Kate as she starts to unravel a bit, knowing she’s possibly in over her head now. A group made up of Matt’s D.o.D/ D.E.A. specialist and border war history buff buddy Steve Forsing (the quirky Jeffrey Donovan of Burn Notice fame), two old school Texas Marshall’s with big guns and even bigger brimmed hats. Along with the accompaniment of black ops experienced Delta Force Operators, probably fresh off the boat from other dark and scary places around the world.
Then the first of a few really well made suspense/action sequences plays out as the team heads into the belly of “The Beast”, as Forsing calls it. Welcome to Ciudad Juarez – which was at one time the murder capital of the world – to extradite one of the cartel’s captured lords and bring him back across the border to El Paso. All in hopes of stirring the pot to root out the shadowy “El Jefe’s” of this particular cartel.
This is when the trifecta of Villeneuve, Deakins, and Johannsson create celluloid jazz together for some truly gripping cinema. As an audience member, you watch these scenes as if you are Kate. Eyes darting everywhere across the screen as the camera focuses, then loses focus on a masked state police officer, a suspicious civilian, a darkened corridor as the heavily armored caravan stops. What was that back there? All while trying to soak up as much info as possible of this alien world, just as Kate is. What did Alejandro say about the state police? Are those firecrackers? “Nope those aren’t firecrackers Kate.” – Forsing exclaims as he spews out more historical info on Juarez. Then a faceless Delta Operator starts calling out over the comms to watch the rooftops. “Copy that, rooftops.” Then, Alejandro interrupts the Delta Op to watch for rogue spotters. “What?” Alejandro – “Rogue spotter left side, ready your service weapon Kate.” Sicario’s can be anyone, ANYWHERE! There’s one behind you as you’re reading this right now!
These are the type of moments that Villaneuve does a superb job of immersing the viewer into his film. Blunt does fine work all throughout as well, being the audience vessel for this, and a few more booty clenching moments to come along on her journey.
You know those adverts of the Paranormal Activity series’ audience reaction in night vision camera dealios? It takes a lot for me to get scared from Hollywood fare anymore. All of the semi- annual Blumhouse produced horror stuff that modern gen movie folks find scary, yawn. But both times I saw Sicario… yikes! The film invoked the same jolting moments of genuine “jump-scare” release from the wonderfully executed tension all throughout.
Sicario is also probably the closest thing I’ll ever get to seeing a film version of author Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country For Old Men) poetically dark, ultra-violent American Southwest border war period piece Blood Meridian (since I think Ridley Scott isn’t attached to the project anymore). One particular thing I dug about the movie is how you see the horribly violent aftermaths of the world Kate is entering. We see the “procedure” in how Graver, his team and Alejandro operate…we know there are bad people doing horrible things, and we hope justice can prevail. But we never really see the “monsters” so to speak. Mostly just the tentacles of folks living with it (or making a living being a part of it), the Mules and the Pollo’s, the soldados and the innocents. Until we do… and it is then that all lines are blurred. When procedure is thrown out the window for a more archaic type of old world justice, prevalent in these same border towns throughout history, from the mid to late 1800’s until now… wild west indeed.
Another aspect I dug was the sense of foreboding, looming, all encompassing dread throughout Sicario. Johan Johansson’s unnerving score plays a big part in this. But then the script, the actors’ choices, or Deakins’ cinematography will lighten things up just enough to put you at ease before the next frightening surprise reveals itself as the story unfolds. An entertaining and intense mix of great film-making that finds itself in familiar territory with this genre’s best. As Villeneuve’s film shares the same space of creatives like Jonathan Demme (Silence of The Lambs), Tom Clancy’s novel Clear And Present Danger (also a Jack Ryan franchise film entry), Michael Mann (Manhunter, Heat, the underrated Miami Vice ’06), and David Fincher’s classico, gut-turning mood piece Seven.
Sons of Anarchy actor/screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s script flows through the POV’s of the people involved, both innocently or willingly, caught up in these bloody chess games. “Dark” always needs “light” to have meaning, and vice versa (Deakins’ excellent work also plays with these elements in the film which I picked up on more during my 2nd viewing) and sometimes, there are no “right” sides, no absolutes when it comes to the worst of what humanity can become. Villeneuve’s film presents these themes to the audience with no favoritism of the players involved as we see the repercussions of these modern day brush wars.
It’s all grey. A hot, claustrophobic, dirty, bloody, scary grey. Where heroes and villains truly exist only in our imaginations, at Comic-Con, during the 4th quarter of a Cowboys vs. Giants football game, or the final minutes of a Barcelona vs. Real Madrid futbol match. But the Boogeymen, the “Baba Yaga’s” on both sides are very real. Captain America or the heroic Luchadores? Not so much.
So bravo, Sicario. Welcome to my second favorite film of 2015 slot. Fitting snugly behind #1 MM:Fury Road, and knocking ’71 , Inside Out, It Follows, Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, Straight Outta Compton down a few notches. While maybe not the most uplifting film out right now, and I’m sure Micheal Bay’s next black ops Benghazi actioner (which ran a preview before Sicario) will satisfy those domestic audiences that need clear “winners” portrayed in these kinds of movies. This one stays with you for awhile long after the credits roll… and it absolutely rattles you while watching it. Which for me makes Sicario one of the finest cinematic treats of 2015.
A couple selections from the sweet score if you want to peep it…