Sicario explores the world of drug cartels with an award-worthy performance by Emily Blunt
With Netflix’s Narcos (a show about Pablo Escobar), Matthew Heineman’s Cartel Land (a documentary on a citizen uprising against the Mexican drug cartel) and now, Dennis Villeneuve’s latest picture Sicario, South America and South American drug cartels in particular, have re-entered the cultural consciousness in various forms. With such material, where there is a war against something, be it terror or drugs in this case, film-makers always run the risk of forgetting ethics and the people who are actually affected, in order to deliver a well-directed, action-thriller film. What a relief then that Sicario is not just that, but it’s a politically-aware film too.
Emily Blunt has never been better. Here, she plays Kate Macy, a determined field agent, who is right at the centre of an FBI raid against a cartel house somewhere in Arizona. She has something of Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya, but Sicario is no slow-burn. The walls literally come down in the first 10 minutes, when a truck forces its way through the living room of a cartel house. The entire raid, as a set piece, is very well put together. It’s electrifying and horrifying in equal measure. And this is just a starting point. Macy and her team’s discovery in the cartel house leads to an even bigger mission; a special unit is set up to try and attack the actual source in Mexico.
Men who couldn’t be more different to each other flank Macy on either side. There is the mischievous, quasi-leader Matt (Josh Brolin), who irritates our heroine but is also responsible for getting her onto the team. Then, there is the titular sicario (the term is Mexican slang for “hitman”), Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who is quiet and calm. There is something deadly about him, but despite being a man of few words, he has a certain fondness for Macy. Not in a romantic way, but rather a paternal one. In turn, Macy is perhaps a touch too idealistic and naive, never sure of whose side Alejandro is really on, or not realising when she is just being used for certain strategic moves by Matt.
Technically speaking, Sicario is as good as it gets. Joe Walker’s editing and Roger Deakins’ cinematography enrich the proceedings considerably and their names should respectively come up multiple times for next year’s awards. Deakins, who has previously worked with Villeneuve on Prisoners, is unmatched when it comes to authentically shooting a particular time of day. In Sicario, nighttime actually looks like nighttime and not just like an idea of it. A tunnel shootout sequence, towards the end of the picture, is worth mentioning for its pristine lighting.
After Incendies received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011, French-Canadian Villeneuve has established himself as the quintessential genre film-maker in Hollywood. While his works haven’t always been flawless, he’s managed to work with great casts and crews. His Enemy is still mind-bending and dazzling on second or third viewing. Like many non-American directors before him, Villeneuve has portrayed the country very genuinely. Sicario certainly feels that way. At the beginning of the film, it’s unclear as to why Alejandro, this non-American character, is an associate of Matt in the first place. Only during the climax, when the film entirely shifts its focus onto this outsider, do things clear up. It’s in these scenes, the last 20 minutes or so, that the film acquires true greatness. Perhaps, it took that outsider’s point-of-view to achieve that.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 11th, 2015.