If director Denis Villeneuve has always been good at one thing, it’s presenting you with the moral ambiguity of his characters, who are usually normal people faced with harrowing circumstances. We saw this first with Prisoners and then with last year’s Enemy. Sicario, while it presents similar moral dilemmas and themes, is probably the most mainstream film Villeneuve has done so far and engages in a world that’s violent, brutal, and far more complicated than often led to believe.
Drug cartels make great dramas, wrought with battles, dangerous situations, and shootouts. But this isn’t quite the angle that Villeneuve takes. Of course there are all of these things in Sicario (which means “hitman”) but they’re essentially presented in different ways. Emily Blunt’s character represents naïvety. She’s recruited by the cloaked-in-secrets CIA (Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro), who are working a case issued through higher government officials. Blunt is working kidnappings with the FBI in Arizona that haven’t led her any closer to taking down any cartels. The opening of the film is just that, a FBI bust that gives them more than they’d bargained for when they try to take down a drug lord, only to find more than a quarter of bodies stashed behind walls, courtesy of a cartel.
Villeneuve employs the use of Blunt as a (relatively) normal person who sees horrendous things but thinks taking down the cartel is a matter of just getting the job done. But things are far more complicated than that and as the film progresses, we see just how much of a game this entire mission is. No one can really be trusted, no one is willing to give her answers, and everyone will use their power to come up on top. But most importantly, nothing is as it seems and everything is morally, ethically, and legally questionable in a film that peruses characters to present a situation that is far from being tied up neatly.
Roger Deakins, who also worked on Prisoners with Villeneuve, is back as the director of photography and his work is visually beautiful. Deakins employs muted but darker colors to complement the story and there’s a rough, but crisp way the film looks that really highlights its events. Villeneuve’s shots are fantastic, most especially the one of the cast walking away from you and into the desert as the sun fades to darkness. The entire cast gives superb and fervent performances, articulating their characters using facial expressions and other forms of body language. And since this is very much a film where dialogue is only the half of it, the nonverbal communication is layered.
Sicario is also reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 drug thriller Traffic in that it’s intelligent, well-executed, exciting, and also happens to star Benicio Del Toro. At the same time, Denis Villeneuve makes this film all his own. It’s horrifying and thrilling, around every corner hidden is something new to be discovered and it’s not annoyingly predictable. Somewhat bothersome is the fact that Blunt, the only woman in the cast, is played as the naïve one that Brolin and his team picked from the bunch. Thankfully, however, it doesn’t take away from the premise of the film and Blunt’s character isn’t portrayed as dumb in all the ways that matter. Villeneuve gives you characters and situations to be questioned and dissected. It’s the kind of film you walk away thinking about, with its moral ambiguity and secrets around every turn. And although some of the disturbing images are hard to swallow at times, Sicario is a drug thriller you won’t want to miss seeing.
Release Date: September 25, 2015 | Director: Denis Villeneuve | Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan | Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal, Raoul Trujillo, Maximiliano Hernandez | Genre: Crime, Thriller | MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, grisly images, and language