Matthew Turner delivers his verdict on gritty drug war thriller Sicario, starring Emily Blunt and Josh Brolin
After the killer one-two punch of his previous two films, Prisoners and Enemy, director Denis Villeneuve delivers the goods once again with this gripping, morally complex thriller that focuses on the murkier side of the war on drugs.
The film opens with steely FBI agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt) uncovering a veritable house of horrors during a raid on an Arizona house owned by a Mexican drug cartel. The success of the operation leads to Kate being recruited by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the mysterious leader of a secret American task force dedicated to bringing down the cartel.
As Kate heads to Mexico as part of a covert task force mission, she begins to question Graver’s real objectives, as well as those of his equally enigmatic Columbian cohort, former prosecutor Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who warns Kate that, “Nothing will make sense to your American ears, but by the end, you will understand”. Soon, Kate is forced to confront the realities of her own moral and legal lines in the sand, with only her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, aka Psychoville’s Tealeaf) as the voice of reason.
Seemingly channelling Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Emily Blunt is superb as Kate, her piercing intelligence constantly trying to size up her situation, but getting stonewalled at every turn by her supposed colleagues. Brolin is equally good as her tight-lipped boss, and we constantly suspect, along with Kate, that his seemingly laid back, sandal-wearing, good-old-boy charm is a front for something more sinister. In addition, Kaluuya is excellent as Reggie, bringing the film a welcome dose of humour in his non-plussed observations.
However, the film is roundly stolen by Benecio Del Toro, who delivers perhaps a career-best performance as Alejandro (the “sicario”, meaning “hitman”, of the title), under-playing to terrific effect and exuding a chilling blankness that buries deep under your skin.
Villeneuve proved with Prisoners that he’s a master of slow-burning tension and so it proves here, pulling off a number of nail-bitingly suspenseful set-pieces and orchestrating a thrilling gunfight that’s straight out of the Michael Mann playbook. He’s aided in the atmosphere department by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose growling, electronic score adds a palpable sense of menace that will have you driving your nails into your palms.
The script, by actor-turned-writer Taylor Sheridan, poses some uncomfortable questions and makes a number of subtle and not-so-subtle comparisons between America’s tactics in both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror; it’s no coincidence that Roger Deakins’ jaw-droppingly beautiful cinematography (seriously, just write his name on the Oscar, already) often makes the Mexican desert look like war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sicario is an expertly crafted, beautifully shot and superbly acted thriller that delivers high quantities of suspense and action, cemented by an intelligent, morally complex script.