An FBI agent is recruited by a shadowy agency to help fight the cartels.
I’m convinced that Denis Villeneuve can’t make a bad movie. The man is a genius, and this film is a perfect showcase of his talents. The film is slow and methodical, building tension and dread as it moves towards its disturbing finale. This is perhaps the best drug trafficking movie since “Traffic” (2000), which, coincidentally, Benicio Del Toro won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. “Sicario” is a ruthless, violent, and grim thriller that is crafted with such skill and precision that it’s darn near impossible to look away.
(SOME SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
Kate Macer (Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place”) leads a swat team to a home in Arizona where they suspect hostages are being held by a Mexican cartel. After a brief raid, it is discovered that bodies of forty-two men and women are hidden in the walls of the house. After a bomb at the scene goes off and kills two officers, Kate and her less experienced partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”), are brought back to the agency where they’re approached by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin, “Deadpool 2”), who claims he is running an operation that will bring down the ones responsible for what happened at the house. Kate says she wants to help, and Matt takes her down across the border to Mexico where she meets Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”). As the story continues, Kate begins to question Alejandro and Matt’s methods, though they seem to be the only ones making any sort of difference.
There is so much to love about this movie, but first of all, lets touch on the directing. Villeneuve is a man that likes to take his time building tension and he knows how to make the viewer feel uncomfortable or nervous. Even the opening scene of this film fills the viewer with dread; the slow pacing of the shots mixed with the grim atmospheric soundtrack dragged me right in. He’s a very subtle director when he needs to be, and this film is full of subtle twists, revelations, and symbolic metaphors even from the opening scene. One of the most constant metaphors is a crossing of lines or borders; throughout the film, we see Kate keep crossing lines, quite literally and metaphorically. How far is she willing to go, or is there a line she wont cross? There are multiple things used as barriers throughout this film: doorways, curtains, barbed wire fences, tunnels, gates… when you’re watching this movie, try to notice when Kate crosses these lines. Most of the time it’s when she’s getting deeper into trouble, and sometimes she doesn’t even notice she’s crossed a line until its too late. Characters also are continuously crossing from light into dark or vice versa. The shootouts and action are directed in a way not usually shown in action movies; the violence is gritty and realistic, but they don’t drag out the kills or have ridiculously over-the-top explosions. Instead, they keep the violence grounded. One of the first shootouts probably only lasts for a total of fifteen seconds because the shooters are so precise, but honestly that’s far more realistic than having a fifteen-minute shootout.
Taylor Sheridan’s writing is another brilliant part of this film. There are so many layers to this film, and that starts at the very beginning: he sets up an expectation and then immediately subverts it. The character dynamics are also incredibly subtle. From the first time we see Kate talk to her partner, Reggie, we learn their relationship without them spelling it out for us. He’s a little greener than she, but they both watch out for each other. They’re close and they want to cover each other’s backs; both of them are idealistic and want to do what’s right, but getting pulled in with Matt and Alejandro puts strains on their relationship. None of this is spelled out for us; it’s all incredibly subtle. That subtlety also stretches to the overarching plot. Nothing is really spelled out for us; most of the time we’re kept guessing because Matt and Alejandro don’t really want Kate to know more than she has to. The plot unfolds gradually, and as we approach the end twists come repeatedly, but you have to be paying attention or you miss them entirely. Taylor Sheridan is a great writer- if you like this and haven’t seen “Hell or High Water” (2016) and “Wind River” (2017) check those out next; both are great, gritty and dark thrillers with fantastic characters and moral dilemmas.
The acting is another thing that really blew me away in this movie. Honestly, I’m surprised Emily Blunt didn’t get more recognition for this. She was fantastic, per usual, but the way she shows her character’s moral conviction throughout this movie really made her stand out for me. Benicio Del Toro is the best he’s been since “Traffic”. He’s terrifying, but at the same time he’s able to make us care for him. Josh Brolin was good too, but it’s hard to top Del Toro and Blunt in this film.
Perhaps my favorite part of this film was actually the bleak and realistic ending (SOME MINOR SPOILERS). After the finale, the final scene takes place at a soccer game, where people are just going about their business as usual, and in the distance they hear gunfire. They turn and look towards the violence, but don’t react. To them, this is just another day, and nothing has changed at all. It’s as if to ask the viewer: how long has the war on drugs gone on in America, and what has really changed despite all the violence?
This film is incredible. It’s an amazingly crafted thriller that deserves your attention. Some people I’ve talked to complain about the pacing of this movie, or the way that the action scenes aren’t actiony enough for them. I urge those people to watch this again. Subtle dialogue, incredible direction and acting, and a disturbingly dark ending make for one of the most taught thrillers I’ve seen in years.
“Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado” comes out this Friday (6/29/2018). The sequel sees the return of Del Toro and Brolin as well as screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. We're missing Villeneuve, so I doubt we'll see something nearly as amazing as this... but we'll see.
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