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SICARIO (2015) review

January 5, 2016

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written by: Taylor Sheridan
produced by: Basil Iwanyk, Thad Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell & Molly Smith
directed by: Denis Villeneuve
rating: R (for strong violence, grisly images, and language)
runtime: 121 min.
U.S. release date: September 18, 2015 and September 25, 2015 (limited) & October 2, 2015 (wide)  
DVD/Blu-ray release date: January 7, 2016

 

Director Denis Villeneuve is back at it, once again probing the darkness of humanity in “Sicario”, just like he did in “Prisoners“, “Enemy” and the Oscar-nominated “Incendies”. Of all the films I saw in 2015, there are at least four moments in this one film that standout as some of the best of the year. They are scenes that are mostly quiet, superbly lit and edited and very immersive. I find myself revisiting it just for those scenes alone, but then I’m reminded how great the cast of “Sicario” is and how tight the screenplay is by Taylor Sheridan, known for his work on “Sons of Anarchy”.

Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a lead FBI Agent of a tactical kidnap and response team who, in the intense opening scene, plows through a suburban Arizona house  looking for hostages and suspected kidnappers. The job blows up in her face (literally) with casualties, yet she and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) are patted on the back by her superior Dave Jennings (Victor Garber), who recommends her to Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a CIA Special Activities Division undercover officer and Department of Defense adviser leading a team of Delta Force operators searching for those responsible, in particular cartel boss Manuel Díaz (Bernardo P. Saracino).

 

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Thinking she can do some good, yet feeling like she’s not giving much of a choice, Kate volunteers. Without any details as to what the team’s objective is – not to mention who they work for – her lack of clarity is further clouded when they are joined by Matt’s secretive partner, Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), who has a mysterious vendetta against cartel kingpin, Fausto Alarcón (Julio Cedillo).  The team pursue their leads into the perilous heart of Juárez, Mexico, which lead to startling altercations and finds Kate’s confusion deepen as Matt works to uncover a drug-smuggling tunnel below the Texas-Mexico border.

Sheridan writes Blunt’s Kate is our avatar in this enthralling thriller. Blunt navigates through the film’s saturated brightness and rich earth tones, courtesy of criminally talented cinematographer Richard Deakins (“Skyfall” and “Inside Llewyn Davis“) and the haunting score from Jóhann Jóhannsson (who worked on Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” as well) and we wind up just as perplexed as she is. She’s our gateway into this dreadful madness, like Charles Marlow’s voyage up the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, not knowing what he’ll find waiting for him in Africa, the same can be said for Kate’s vague mission to Mexico. We’re never quite sure who she should believe, trust or count on once she’s assigned to this secretive team led by Brolin’s cagey character. Blunt’s starts with a razor-sharp determination with an almost naive idealism which is gradually worn down, leaving her with a newfound wisdom and apprehensiveness as the story ends. Throughout she is both tough and vulnerable and strikingly expressive as she struggles under the strain of her initial blind subservience.

What “Sicario” offers are varying questions of morality and duty, as we see characters teetering on that thin line justice  and revenge. Villeneuve uses Sheridan’s screenplay to treat the film like an onion, peeling back complicated layers to reveal a simple yet affective core. One of the great supporting actors in the film is del Toro, who dialogue increase as slowly as his agenda is revealed.  His Alejandro is introduced as a liaison to the CIA, with former ties to the Mexican cartel, but there’s much more going on with the character, which can be seen in del Toro’s eye contact, body language and calm yet intimidating line delivery. It’s a role that accentuates the mystery of the film’s tone and is understandably earning the actor some year-end supporting actor nominations. Brolin has some of the funniest lines, which is needed in a film this dark and serious, but del Toro is the most memorable presence.

 

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There are some complaints that “Sicario” doesn’t have a main protagonist to follow once the story emphasizes del Toro’s arc over Blunt’s, but that’s actually an aspect of the film I found quite intriguing, especially once the two actors face off at the end. What Sheridan does is circle around the two characters, starting us off with Kate and essentially concluding with Alejandro – some viewers didn’t like that – I had no problem at all with it.

I alluded to about four memorable scenes (at least) in “Sicario”, most of them are solid action sequences, while others are straight-up nail-biters. The aforementioned opening scene sets the film’s suspenseful tone, but there’s also a brutal shootout that takes place on the crowded Bridge of Americas, when the team is driving back to the U.S. from Juárez, between the team and cartel enforcers in broad daylight. It felt like something out of a Friedkin film. Villeneuve deliberately shows the heightened anxiety and paranoia of the characters as the scene bottlenecks into bloody chaos in this well-choreographed scene. There’s also a scene between Kate and a local cop, Ted (Jon Bernthal, wonderful in a great cameo role), back in the States, that starts out providing a supposed much-needed downtime for Kate, but soon turns out to the complete opposite and yet another nail-biter. There are also two scenes during the film’s third act, both involving del Toro, which are unforgettable almost-silent scenes that will linger with the audience long after viewing. Okay, that’s more than four scenes, but it’s hard to list them all, since the story that unfolds never really lets up.

 

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The look of “Sicario” is just as unrelenting and remarkable as the film’s screenplay with Deakin’s cinematography accentuating the dark tone and feel. It’s the second collaboration between Deakins and Villeneuve “Prisoners” and finds me anticipating their work in the upcoming “Blade Runner” sequel – something I never thought I’d type. Deakins delivers some of the year’s best photography here. Whether he has the camera roving above a naked border that resembles a scorched planet surface or minimally lights a scene in almost total darkness, his work is as haunting as the film’s story.

“Sicario” is incredibly effective and distressing as Villeneuve offers an exploration of the effects of violence in an unflinching, detailed manner.  It’s an engrossing and masterful film, showcasing unforgettable border warfare and is one of the best films of 2015.

 

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RATING: ****

 

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