Posted: October 16, 2015 in Film reviews

Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro and Josh Brolin.


During the attempted rescue of kidnap victims in Arizona, an FBI hostage rescue team led by Kate Macer (Blunt) make a shocking discovery that seems linked to the Mexican drug cartels. Later that day Kate’s boss introduces her to a Department of Defence advisor named Matt Graver (Brolin) who needs an FBI agent with special weapons and tactics expertise to join a specialised team he has put together with the intention of tracking down one of the most senior cartel bosses.

Kate agrees to join the team and is introduced to the mysterious Alejandro Gillick (de Toro) who may have once been a prosecutor in Mexico, and who may, or may not, be an assassin (Sicario means hitman in Spanish).

Initially Kate is told they’re heading to El Paso, but instead the team cross the border into Mexico to extract a prisoner who they believe can lead them to a man named Diaz, a high level boss who they think can lead them to the head honcho of the organisation, if they can get him rattled enough.

Despite being misled Kate sticks with the team, but it soon becomes apparent that nothing is quite what it seems, and that she’s in way over her head, and when she can’t tell friend from foe can she have any hope of surviving?
I’ll be honest here, there was a moment where I wondered if Sicario was all it had been cracked up to be. Sure there’d been a couple of nice set pieces (though trailers and reviews had kinda spoiled one quite heavily) and the three headliners all appeared to be at the top of their game, but it wasn’t living up to the hype.

And then all of a sudden it was…with a vengeance.

It’s hard to know what point I became transfixed, probably shortly after our heroes decamp to a cowboy bar for some much needed R&R, but from that moment on I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

It’s hard to define just what kind of a film Sicario is. On the surface it’s a thriller come action film, but it’s really so much more than that. With its wide open vistas and gunfights, it feels like a western, whilst at times it veers into territory more akin to a horror film, not so much in its blood and gore as in its tone.

There’s a palpable sense of dread hanging over almost every scene that most horror films can only dream of, and even in the most innocent moments you can’t help expecting something horrible to happen (and often it does).

At times it’s a conspiracy thriller, at others almost a war film, and it isn’t afraid to mash genres together. One eerie scene set inside some tunnels and shot via night vision feels like the director placed the Blair Witch Project and Call of Duty in a blender, yet actually created something palatable at the end of it, and the tension is aided by a stark, terrifying in its own right, soundtrack.

Emily Blunt continues to show that she’s a great actress, flitting from period drama to chick flick, escapist sci-fi war movie to deadly serious indictment of the war on drugs and convincing in every role I’ve ever seen her play. For a film with such a strong female lead Sicario would never pass the Bechdel test, and for all the agency Macer has, for most of the film Blunt is a horrified passenger dragged along for the ride, her tough cynic revealed to be a naive innocent when exposed to the horrible truth about the cartels, and the American agents who fight against them. She is us though, and the horror in her eyes mirrors ours. It’s a great performance.

As Matt Graver Brolin effortlessly channels the relaxed sleaziness of a man who knows he’s doing bad things but has long come to terms with the fact that he’s doing them, he believes, for the right reasons.

It is no disrespect to either Blunt or Brolin however to say that the standout performance belongs to del Toro. Oozing mystery and danger he is urbane one moment, tender and almost fatherly, but is utterly ruthless and horrifyingly brutal the next. It’s a nuanced performance indicating a man who was once decent and noble but who’s stared too long into the abyss and has become as much of a monster as the men he’s fighting. He is superb and I hope his name pops up come Oscars’ time (ditto Blunt).

Finally there’s a nice performance from British actor Daniel Kaluuya (who you might remember from The Fades of Black Mirror) as Macer’s partner. He always impressed me on the small screen and it’s nice to see he’s done very well for himself.

Director Villeneuve, along with renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins has created a mesmerizingly beautiful film here, from wide angle shots of the desert to the overhead shots of the Mexican border, with a river of cars heading towards America, whilst a trickle of vehicles drives the opposite way, and a scene late on of special forces soldiers silhouetted against the sunset is practically worth the price of admission alone. Again one hopes those behind the camera will become associated with golden statutes come next year.

This won’t be a film for everyone; for a film billed as an action movie there are long stretches between set pieces, and some of the gun battles are realistically short lived, but all the more impactful for that. And for a film about the war on drugs the film is surprisingly bereft of showing the impact of drugs on the streets, and aside from a side story featuring Maximiliano Hernández as a Mexican cop we don’t get much of a feel what the other side of the fence is like, although perhaps this is a conscious choice, distancing us from the front line in the same way the Americans are distanced from it, seeing bodies hung from bridges as they speed by in black SUVs, or viewing things from high above via drones and satellites—making it easier to dehumanise the enemy or pretend it’s all one great big computer game.

There’s a slight issue of viewpoint. Blunt is our point of view character, yet at times she’s side-lined so we can follow del Toro and/or Brolin. I wouldn’t go as far as to say this is jarring, but it is noticeable.

In the end though nothing can stop this being a top notch film that manages to be exciting and tense, yet still deliver a message, that the war against the cartels is essentially unwinnable. The closest thing I can compare it to is No Country for Old Men, although the message of Sicario, that this is no country for young women, is much better presented.

Highly recommended.

  1. You make it sound brilliant! Not sure if it’s too gritty for me, though…

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