I don't think I've seen a movie in theaters this year that has as much pure, visceral tension as Sicario. The latest from director Denis Villeneuve (known for Prisoners, one of the very best of 2013), Sicario is a nihilistic and bleak drama that works as both a crazy, white-knuckle thrill ride and a thought-provoking, thoroughly compelling story. Villeneuve focuses on the terror of the drug war in this ambient thriller, which alternates between eerily quiet scenes of calming nothingness and graphically bloody occurrences of shocking violence. It's a film so gripping and so intense that you cover your eyes, sneaking a look at the screen as each of the razor sharp sequences play out. By placing us in the shoes of two outsiders (Emily Blunt's Kate Macer, and her partner, played by Daniel Kaluuya), Villeneuve is able to make a film where the lead characters know as much as the audience- we're placed in unfamiliar situations, where we don't know the ultimate purpose or the circumstances. Everything in Sicario adds up to a moviegoing experience that can only be described as haunting- the music, Roger Deakins' cinematography, the atmosphere, and even the performances. Sicario may not reach the heights of Prisoners (it'd be hard to live up to that one), but it's a movie that you just can't stop thinking about.
A tank drives through a desolate desert village in Arizona. The mood intensifies, and the music swells as the tank crashes into the door of a suburban household. FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) and her partner Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya) burst out of the vehicle and charge the drug dealers who are living inside. Kate runs into one room and is met with a hail of gunfire from one man. She takes the man down. But soon, she realizes what the dealers are really hiding. 40 dead, rotting bodies stored in the walls of a suburban home. Kate is horrified, and after an explosion takes down two cops in the aftermath of the operation, she is determined to catch the men responsible. With that, Sicario begins its journey.
Kate is called into the office of Dave Jennings (Victor Garber), their FBI superior, but at the table are several other men. Who are they? Who do they work for and what do they want? One of the men introduces himself as Matt Graves (Josh Brolin), a Department of Defense adviser. Another one of the men is Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), who also introduces himself as a DoD adviser. Who are these guys? What are their goals? And who do they really work for? As Kate finds herself thrust into a variety of the most dangerous and terrifying situations in the drug capital of Mexico, Juarez, she finds herself questioning the motives of the men in charge and her faith is tested as she realizes that nobody can really be trusted.
While Villenueve can sometimes get lost in the craziness of his own plots, there's no denying the fact that he brings an absurd amount of intensity to every single frame. Prisoners, a movie that I only watched on a small, portable DVD screen, was gripping from start to finish and one of the most unsettling and spectacular movie experiences I've ever had. Sicario is less of a twisty affair and more of a bluntly ambiguous one- the performances are calmer and the atmosphere is more serene, but when the violence comes, it's blisteringly nerve-wracking and exquisitely choreographed. I find Sicario's brutality and small-scale story somewhat saddening, but there's no denying the captivating power of the way that Villeneuve tells this story. It firmly puts him on the map as one of the most skilled filmmakers working today.
Sicario's first act might be the most disorienting and powerful opening that a movie can possibly have. In addition to the opening scene that I described above, there's a second scene that will make you stare blankly at the screen, eyes wide open, all while you start to feel the atmosphere close in on you. I won't exactly tell you what the scene consists of, but I'll say this- it's a raid behind Mexican borders, and Villeneuve's message is expressed loud and clear. The machinations of the assault, the visual poetry of the way that the scene unfolds, the ever-intensifying music in the background and the fact that the main character and the audience are both in the dark all contributes to create the finest action scene of the year. I was utterly immersed and terrified by the scene, and it's one of the best in recent memory. It shows Villeneuve at the height of his filmmaking prowess, cleverly manipulating the audience to feel a certain way.
It's unfortunate that the rest of the film can't quite keep it at that same level. Yes, the third act does come roaring back to life with another frighteningly crazy action scene, but the middle act wanders endlessly. Sure, there's still a slight sense of tension in the background, yet the second act of the film feels static. Not much happens in the middle section that could really classify as important. A few isolated incidents highlight the terror of the drug war, and Villeneuve inserts a bit of character and plot building, but I just found myself bored at times. However, it doesn't stay that way for long.
Thankfully, Villeneuve re-animates Sicario with a rip-roaring and terrific conclusion that is simply brilliant. Intense, meticulous and stunning, by the end of the film, Sicario has you in its clutches, watching through the openings between your fingers as the story unfolds. The third act is both crushingly violent and morally devastating, making you hope and pray that the film's worldview isn't correct. This cynical suspense ride is almost unwatchably nerve-shredding and that makes it all the more fun to watch.
Led by an incredible trio of actors, Sicario increases its level of menace through three great performances. Emily Blunt is already gaining some Oscar attention for her turn as Kate, who is the audience's pathway to the madness for the entire film. I wish that Villeneuve had given Kate a bit more complexity, but there's enough subtle nuances and fascinating subplots that I was compelled by the character. And Blunt is terrific as always, highlighting Kate's anxiety throughout the whole show. Josh Brolin continues his recent string of fantastic performances, bringing lots of charisma and just a bit of mysteriousness to the gum-snapping, flip-flop wearing Matt. He's really good in this film and I would love to see him in more roles like this. And finally, Benicio Del Toro is the true knockout of the film as Alejandro, the cold, calculating killer who very much reminded me of Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh. Alejandro is unpredictable, and when he's on screen, the film reaches a fever pitch of perfection.
But of course, the real stars of the film are the men behind the camera. Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve, who will tackle Blade Runner next, has already established himself as a master of the craft of movie-making and this one shows that he's getting better. It really helps when you have collaborators like Roger Deakins, Taylor Sheridan and Johann Johannson. Deakins' cinematography is crisp and stellar and like all of his best outings, it enhances the film itself. Sheridan's script is masterfully executed, taut and smart for a writing debut. And finally, Johannson's score is viciously intense and it never lets up during the more important moments of the film.
Sicario may falter during its slow second act, but it makes up for it tenfold with scenes that will put you on edge for days. Orchestrated by master filmmaker Villeneuve, this drug war drama has everything that a good thriller needs- a strong ensemble, awesome camerawork, fierce action setpieces and great musical work. It's a piece of cinema that many may find difficult, but it's absolutely one of the most thrilling films of the year- it's not often that we see a rising directorial star working at this high of a level.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.6/10)
Image Credits: Wired, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Flickering Myth, Joblo