Published Sep 10, 2015Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve's seventh feature film — his second substantially budgeted American film — is an example of how direction can ameliorate a mediocre script. It's an edgy, visceral thriller about an American mission to infiltrate a Mexican drug cartel, denoting the human depravity and ethical misgivings on both sides, made contemplative and altogether horrifying though careful consideration of tone and breadth of the living experience. Sicario is a thinking film for grown-ups with populist appeal; a balance that is rarely achieved, particularly in a cinematic climate so aggressively immersed in Peter Pan id-fantasy whimsy.
The premise, which is mired in cop drama clichés, finds rookie — albeit a decorated rookie, with a handful of successful missions under her belt — Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) joining a vaguely defined, clandestine government task force led by the flip-flop-wearing Matt (Josh Brolin) to uncover the kingpin of a cartel responsible for an increase in stateside crime. Kate's motivations are made plausible by an introductory sequence of a raid in Arizona in which dozens of dead bodies are found dry-walled into a modest suburban bungalow. She's also depicted by Emily Blunt, quite smartly, as someone who's nearly mastered their game face, never showing the anxiety or concern, never asking kneejerk questions or responding without consideration.
Despite knowing nothing about the mission beyond the desired long-term outcome, Kate hops on a plane with Matt and the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whom her instincts — and minor interrogation — tell her isn't part of any American government organization. Eventually, after falling all the way down the rabbit hole, a hole that leads to shootouts in broad daylight at the border and a terrifying run-in with a hitman, Kate's idealism is challenged by realities and compromises that surpass her understanding of moral and judicial absolutes.
The basic plot of Sicario isn't particularly groundbreaking — government conspiracy in relation to the drug trade is almost a redundancy at this point — but Villeneuve turns what could easily have been a throwaway thriller into a devastating psychological horror. As Jóhann Jóhannsson's deliberately discomforting and propulsive score looms, the camera lingers on Blunt's face and the seemingly irrelevant minutiae around her. Villeneuve captures the nuance of her experience — the experience of trying to find grounding in an unfamiliar environment — by observing the body language, the peculiarities and the specificity of the environment surrounding her. It creates an overwhelming sense of alienation. As Matt jokes with Steve (Jeffrey Donovan), a fellow undefined contractor, about contracting gonorrhoea, their inappropriate humour and familiarity in the face of what's proving to be one of the most terrifying experiences of Kate's life adds a dimension of distress and, oddly enough, dehumanization.
There are several basic flaws with Taylor Sheridan's script that those with an understanding of anti-money laundering or intelligence gathering will notice. And once the plot hits its climax, the dignity of the preceding story is eschewed in favour of some fairly standard male contrivance (in the form of an inhuman killing machine on a pretty rote mission of vengeance). But, despite this, Villeneuve's consistent vision and Blunt's determined focus on selling her character helps maintain the experiential component. He's able to make this a story about the absolute devastation and ideological destruction of a well-intentioned woman, which pushes some of these less original ideas and genre tropes into the periphery.
This isn't to suggest that Sicario isn't thrilling. Yes, it's a human drama exploring the feeling of having our very foundation shaken, but it's also filled with an abundance of exceptionally choreographed action sequences and consistently exceptional cinematography. It treads in both worlds and ultimately succeeds in satisfying their individual needs.
Villeneuve really considered the material and extracted the emotional depth and complexity of it to make it more than just a genre movie, which is what he also managed to do with Prisoners. He knows how to tell a story, and he knows how to engage an audience without patronizing them.