I don’t have a strong grasp on the nuances surrounding the US war on drugs, but going by Denis Villeneuve’s latest thriller, I must say the war on drugs has morphed into plain war and that’s putting it simply. There are no codes here, no rules of engagement. Villenueve’s Sicario slowly ushers us into a very dark, violent place, almost like he does in Prisoners. It’s a harsh ride in Prisoners but Villenueve gives audiences some easement they require at the end. We get no such luxury here as the film creeps to a cynical dispiriting conclusion.
We are treated to a splendid but short lived view of Chandler, Arizona as focus shifts from the beautiful landscape to the FBI team led by Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) as they prepare for a kidnapping raid. There is a stressed aura as they roll on to their target that brought to mind the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan. By the time this raid is over we become privy to a sense of dread and even a shockingly calculated horror that hovers over this film – the raid doesn’t end well but it does so with a bang.
When the dust from the frantic opening has settled, Macer is introduced and co-opted into a new frontier of the war on drugs as she is sold on the prospect of taking down a big fish for a change. The point man for this new mission, a Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who comes off initially as an amusing proposition with odd details like his buoyant smile and affinity for slippers and sandals, but his smile turns wry as he develops into the slimy abhorrent entity I’ve come to expect when America tries to sink its claws in security issues. We are not sure who he works for or even his real name.
There is also Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) lurking in the periphery of affairs, but projecting a chilling sense of ambiguity that slowly becomes apparent. There is a disquiet to the anomaly he is seeing as he appears to be a Mexican coming from Columbia fighting on the American side of the drug war. Macer tries to gain some insight into his presence. “I go where I’m sent,” he says. Quite ominous on his part.
The general mission Macer thinks she has bought into involves moves to acquire a key cartel member from Mexico in order to set off a chain of events that may garner substantial intelligence and throw some light on the major cartel person of interest on the other side of the border. We are largely aligned with the idealistic Macer’s perspective as she tries to get a read on the things going around her and she begins to suspect she may be in the middle of a CIA operation with Alejandro wielding a sizable and worrying amount of influence. In the final act, the shady endgame sees a Zero-Dark Thirty style raid over the border into Mexico.
Like I said earlier, not so much a war on drugs as it is just plain war. If you squint your eyes a bit the setting of Juarez in Mexico, where this task force conspires to find itself, almost looks like a battle ground ready to erupt – a Mogadishu or a Basra of a more violent period of time. Juarez is a purgatory of the drug conflict home to glaring offcuts of cartel related violence that has real world resonance. The violence seems the only real thing in our director’s mind seeing as this is a narrative that has conspicuously little to do with drugs.
We are right by Macer’s side as newcomers as we take a tour through the abyss and there is a dynamic at play anchored by strong performances all round with Blunt and Del Toro at the forefront. Del Toro is almost effortless in his disquieting ruthless portrayal of Alejandro but his character is quite tied to the film’s plotting making him difficult to dwell on. Blunt, however presents an interesting arc. Going by the trailers I felt she was going to reinforce her standing as weighty action heroine, but those expecting her to give Furiosa a run for her money will be a tad disappointed.
There is much more at work here. Yes, she holds her own in the raid early on but things fall apart when she is sucked into a more cynical spectrum. She is out of her depth and her solitary female presence seems to be searching constantly for something familiar, something true to give some conviction. She finds none of this till later on. Her arch constantly carries an air of vulnerability as she appears to be falling apart on a physical and emotional level. There is something redeeming in her weakness that we will come to appreciate, especially when we glance through the shadows to the ruthless and vengeful layers of Del Toro’s Alejandro.
I want to try and pinpoint the more pivotal components of Sicario. Taylor Sherridan’s script serves a load of interesting personas but it does present some holes and contrivance on a narrative level albeit ones we can comfortably overlook. I realise now I wasn’t paying heed to Johann Johansson’s score and I only really became aware of Roger Deakin’s cinematography towards the end, but I suspect he may have been a little self-indulgent.
A second viewing is in order to grasp the totality of this production. The editing and pacing I did notice as the terrific sidekick to Villeneuve’s direction. We witness a bit of the bridge sequence in the trailer, but the sequence in its entirety is masterfully constructed with utmost intensity and paranoia. Sicario may reach for higher heights, but it is on the surface a tremendous thriller, one of the most gripping in recent memory.
The title is cartel slang for assassin and derived from the historical Sicarii zealots of Judea. This point, brought up in the opening, will come to have meaningful significance. Sicario is a truly bleak exposition on the cycle of violence that grates at our humanity provoking serious contemplation that transcends the canvas of drug related violence on the US–Mexican border.
Villenueve is a strong 4 for 4 in a little over 5 years establishing himself as one of the finest working directors demanding the attention and respect of film fans with stunning vision and provocative subject matter.
By: Delali Adogla-Bessafirstname.lastname@example.org/Ghana