It was a tense weekend for me at the movies last weekend. On Friday I saw Sicario, and on Sunday I saw The Martian. I spent most of the running times of both of these movies holding my breath. I’m planning on writing about both movies, and since I saw Sicario first I’m going to start with that.
Sicario opens with a gruesome scene that sets the stage for the rest of the film, and lets the audience know what kind of grim tale they are in for.
An FBI hostage rescue team, led by Kate Macer (played by Emily Blunt), raids a house in Chandler, Arizona, looking for hostages. They find no hostages, but make a horrifying discovery. There are dozens of corpses hidden in the walls of the house, as well as explosives in a shed in the backyard, which detonate and kill two police officers.
Following this, Kate’s boss recommends her to Matt Graver (played by Josh Brolin) a Department of Defense advisor putting together a team of elite agents to go after the people responsible for the day’s atrocities. Kate agrees to join the team, and in so doing, falls headfirst into a rabbit hole deeper than she could have imagined.
Kate then meets Matt’s partner, the enigmatic Alejandro (played to chilling perfection by Benicio Del Toro) and is told that they’ll be going to El Paso.
Bet they don’t go to El Paso.
They go across the border, into Juarez, on a high-risk prisoner extraction mission.
Juarez is home to the Juarez Cartel, known for mutilating and decapitating their rivals and displaying the corpses in public areas to instill fear. The film shows this in all of its grisly glory, with bodies hanging from road signs and suspended from freeway overpasses. Sicario is a film that pulls no punches in depicting the violence inherent to its story, and is not for the faint of heart.
The film’s director, Denis Villeneuve, also directed Prisoners, a film I wrote about some time ago. Prisoners and Sicario share some thematic similarities, and neither of them are shy about depicting both grisly violence and the darker side of humanity.
Both films are also nail-bitingly tense, and Villeneuve once again proves himself to be an expert at building suspense. The entire Juarez sequence is masterfully constructed, with every shot and every terse line of dialogue increasing the viewer’s heart rate. The sequence comes to an explosive climax at the border crossing going back into the States, where Kate and the other agents get stuck in the world’s worst traffic jam, and every car could potentially contain hostiles. The agents are handicapped by their rules of engagement, which dictate that they cannot fire unless fired upon, meaning that even when they spot people in some of the cars around them wielding rifles, they can’t do anything unless they are directly threatened.
The sequence is a masterpiece of suspense, with Kate and the other agents’ helplessness intensifying their predicament. The sequence ends with Kate questioning why she’s even there and appalled at the lack of concern for protocol and civilian safety. She starts asking questions, but she can’t get a straight answer from anyone. Not from Matt, not from any of the other agents, and certainly not from the taciturn Alejandro.
She tells her boss at the FBI that Matt and his team are operating outside the boundaries, but is told that they can’t do anything about it and she has to just play along. Matt tells her the same thing, and that the boundaries have expanded for her beyond what she was used to at the FBI. Matt tells her that this is her chance to finally make a difference. Kate is starting to get the impression that she’s bit off more than she can chew, and is even given the opportunity to walk away at one point. But she can’t, because she’s already invested too much of herself to walk out.
I’m not going to sugarcoat here: Sicario is a grim piece of work. It’s the kind of movie you walk out of needing a hug, and maybe a shower. But there are things along the way that make it a bit less punishing to watch, and one of those is the cinematography. The movie looks great, and it’s the kind of movie where nothing is wasted. Every shot, every character, every line of dialogue serves a purpose and nothing is extraneous.
The movie also features a stunning sequence late in the film in which Kate and the other agents raid a tunnel that the cartel uses to transport drugs underneath the border from Mexico into the US. The sequence is shot almost entirely with night-vision and thermal cameras, and is riveting to watch. It reminded me of the show-stopping conclusion of Zero Dark Thirty, where the Navy SEALS raid bin Laden’s safe house.
The whole film is incredibly well-acted and –directed. Emily Blunt is a lovely woman with a beautiful smile, but she doesn’t get much to smile about in this film. She plays Kate as a tough-as-nails agent who nonetheless can’t help but be affected by the toll her job takes on her. I really hope she gets nominated for an Oscar for her work in this film, she deserves it.
Also Oscar-worthy is Benicio Del Toro, who plays Alejandro to absolute perfection. He is incredibly menacing, and his character’s true identity and motivations are kept mysterious throughout the film. You’re never quite sure what this guy’s deal is, but it’s hard to take your eyes off him whenever he’s onscreen. That must be a difficult balance to strike as an actor: to play a character who clearly has his own agenda, but to play him in such a way that the audience is never quite sure what that agenda is. I don’t know how you do that, but Del Toro makes it look easy.
Josh Brolin also does solid work as a government agent accustomed to manipulating people. His constant gum-chewing and casual manner (he wears flip-flops to strategy meetings) clash with the serious nature of his job, and leads the viewer to question exactly what his deal is.
All of these characters are fascinating to watch, with the ways that they bounce off each other and frequently clash. Of course there are other characters in the film, but it really belongs to the three of them, as well as Denis Villeneuve’s sure-handed direction and the gorgeous cinematography by the great Roger Deakins. Deakins is known for his work with Sam Mendes and the Coen Brothers and has been Oscar-nominated an astonishing twelve times but inexplicably has yet to actually win an Oscar. Who knows, maybe this film will fix that. Give the man a damn Oscar already. It’s long past due.
Anyway, rant over. Another thing that makes Sicario such an extraordinary film is its realism. It’s uncommonly realistic for a Hollywood movie, and it acknowledges many realities that most other movies simply gloss over. Guns are loud. Dead bodies smell bad. The good guys don’t always win. It’s sobering to be sure, but it’s also somewhat refreshing in a way to see a film that doesn’t glamorize its subject matter.
At the beginning of the film, after the FBI team finds the bodies in the walls, some of them go out in the back yard and throw up. The film doesn’t dwell on this, but to me it really stood out. It’s an acknowledgment of an unpleasant reality. There’s no shame in it, it’s just something that happens.
Sicario is not an easy watch. It’s not the kind of movie you’ll want to watch frequently, but it is very good, and I could see myself watching it again at some point in the future. It’s the story of an idealistic protagonist who really wants to help improve a terrible situation, only to repeatedly find that she can’t. Without spoiling too much, it turns out that, in the end, she’s just a pawn. She’s basically being used for the entire movie. Still, I wouldn’t say that Sicario is a nihilist film necessarily, and I wouldn’t say that its makers are all a bunch of misanthropes. I don’t know. It’s a movie that’s hard to shake, regardless of the impression it leaves you with.
Anyway, that’s all for now. Have a good day folks, and never forget that there are good things in the world.