At the very beginning of Sicario (2015), Denis Villeneuve opens his 3rd English-language film (following Prisoners and Enemy) with what could best be described as a tactical operation in response to a kidnapping charge. A large group of federal and local law enforcement officers, led by Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) swarms toward a house that, we later discover, is being used by a drug cartel. As the scene unfolds, as you see the police and the FBI surround the house, you might be led to believe that Villeneuve has decided to open his movie about the ongoing War on Drugs happening in the area surrounding the American-Mexican border with a loud, effects-laden shootout that has become the staple of action-thrillers. Then, before the thought becomes concrete inside your head, one of the police trucks slam into a wall of the house and out comes FBI and police personnel, dispatching their targets with ease and without using deadly force. Only once did Kate shoot a gun at a target who deemed it wise to shoot at a group of law enforcement officials while being outnumbered and outgunned. Within a few seconds, threats are neutralized. Simple right?
Simple, yes, before they make a startling discovery. Hidden inside the walls of the house are several dozen bodies, all with bloody plastic bags over their heads, all in various degrees of decomposition. This, for me, represents the whole movie. Sicario masquerades as your run-of-the-mill thriller with intrigue and action yet it has a secret treachery hidden inside its foundations. In the hands of a lesser director wielding a lesser crew, Sicario would have been an ordinary thriller about the drug war in America but Villeneuve is no ordinary director and his crew are some of the best in the business. The cinematography is done by the inimitable Roger Deakins (Fargo, Skyfall); the score is by Jóhann Jóhannsson (Prisoners, The Theory of Everything); and editing is by Joe Walker (12 Years a Slave, Shame, Hunger). This confluence of talent, along with a tight script by novice writer Taylor Sheridan, is what makes Sicario a great film, perhaps one of the year’s best.
It tells the story of Kate Mercer, an up-and-coming FBI agent who operates in the agency’s tactical arm. Emily Blunt has already proven that she can portray a combat-weary soldier in her performance from Edge of Tomorrow and, in Sicario, her character has the same edge as the one from Edge yet played with more nuance and subtlety. Kate is a woman who has gone through a lot yet Villeneuve has rightly given her very little backstory. We learn that she is divorced and childless. We learn that her numerous operations in the tactical arm of the FBI has led her to numerous scenes of murder and crime. Then the story begins and she witnesses human evil at a larger scale than she has ever witnessed before and she wants payback against the people responsible. She joins a team led by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), a mysterious man from another agency, and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro in one of his best roles yet) as an adviser. From the beginning, Kate is way out of her league, at first believing that she was a necessity in the operations of Graver and Alejandro but slowly discovering, bit by agonizing bit, that she is not and that she is only a pawn needed for the machinations of a power who has no interest in her.
Admittedly, Sicario is confusing as it rewards patience and rapt attention but punishes wayward minds. Information is passed on to the audience as bits of a puzzle and Kate, the obvious audience surrogate, is mystified. Only in the end is everything revealed and, at that point, the audience would have already gone through a succession of blood and evil that the truth doesn’t matter anymore. Kate, the one with the moral compass, is beaten at the end by forces who believe in not the white and black but in the gray. This is also a part of what makes Sicario great. The exploration of the effects of the drug war in the US-Mexico border and how such a conflict, like all conflicts that preceded it, are morally dubious. It is so easy to say that in the drug war, the government is the good side and the drug cartels are the bad. But in a world where everything geopolitical is interconnected, no one can no longer defend such a dichotomy.
Denis Villeneuve has crafted a movie that can stand proudly beside Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic and The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men as a movie that sheds light into the drug war and all its intricate complexities. Yet we must also give credit to Jóhannsson who created a score that never overshadowed the film but compliments it instead and to Deakins who once again shot a film so beautifully, taking some of his shadow-work from Skyfall and blending it with magnificent shots of scenery that culminates in one of the most inventive scenes in a film ever recorded, a scene shot purely in thermal imagery and night vision cameras.
Sicario means “hitman” in Spanish and like all hitmen, Sicario is a work that came from a dark corner of the world. Villenevue and company has given us a glimpse into such a world and we should thank him for it.