Please note: This review was submitted by guest writer/local filmmaker Willem Grobler
I went into Sicario with lofty expectations. After Denis Villeneuve’s triumphant Prisoners (2013), how could I expect any less? That film made me deal with many deep, brooding and dark emotions for a while after I’d left the cinema, and Sicario is no different. In fact, if anything, Sicario is far weightier and overbearing, and in that sense I’m loathe to call it entertaining. Nonetheless, it’s nothing short of a cinematic triumph – both in an artistic and technical sense – yet it is the kind of triumph that requires some time to set in; a pyrrhic victory perhaps, and it is precisely therein that its strengths lie.
From its very inception, Sicario makes a promise: this is a confusing, dangerous world in which there are no clear heroes or villains, and through the character of Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) we begin to experience the the true and real cost of the war on drugs (which, judging by this film’s subtext, is an abysmal failure with ends that are far more nefarious than they are good). Mercer, a woman in a man’s world that has distinguished herself from day one as a tough as nails FBI field agent who kicks asses and takes names without so much as a blink, is coaxed by shady CIA operative Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) into volunteering to join a unit tasked with taking down a Mexican drug cartel responsible for wreaking havoc on the US/Mexico border.
Mercer serves as our window into a world that has no lines; here is only death and destruction, and right and wrong are nothing more than bedtime stories parents tell their children to try and keep them on the right side of the track. Mutilated corpses hanging from the overpasses of freeways are everyday sightings; automatic gunfire and turf wars are par for the course.
Mercer is soon supplanted by Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a man with no surname, and seemingly, no past. As the plot unfolds, however, it becomes clear that there is far more to Alejandro than meets the eye, much like Mercer’s mission, which is a blurry to and fro over the US/Mexico border in which Mexican lives seem to be of little consequence. Juarez – the city in which a lot of the action takes place – is a violent landscape in which wolves prey upon sheep… And each other.
This is where Sicario begins to evoke reminiscences of Heat, Traffic and Zero Dark Thirty. Yet it remains its own beast, and Villeneuve’s deliberately slow pace is accentuated by brutally violent turning points that had me on the edge of my seat throughout. In fact, I experienced this film as a slow, constant heart attack; while it conjured up images that weren’t wholly new to me, it presented them in a context and within a tone that I’d never perceived them before. Much like with Prisoners, Villeneuve evokes deep, inexplicable emotions that are difficult to confront, but nonetheless important. They speak to parts of us we often ignore for fear of what we may find when we delve into these recesses of our souls: we are all dark, twisted and full of lies, all of us capable of true evil. And in this sense Villeneuve distinguishes himself as a true force in Hollywood, especially in a time where the box office is dominated by superhero movies, remakes and reboots. He gives us a powerful, thought-provoking film that haunts us long after the credits have rolled and we’ve left the cinema.
But much of Sicario’s success relies upon the capable artistry of the director’s power team from Prisoners: Director of photography Roger Deakins, and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. Whether it’s a pulsating action sequence, or a deliberately slow paced setup in which silhouetted CIA operatives melt into a foreboding, twilit horizon like shadows, Deakins and Jóhansson add a layer of emotion to Villeneuve’s vision that is virtually unparalleled in Hollywood today, and that alone makes Sicario worth watching.
It is also worth noting that screenwriter Taylor Sheridan (whom some may recall as Deputy Chief David Hale in FX’s critically acclaimed Sons of Anarchy) extensively researched Sicario, and considers it the first part in a thematic trilogy that explores the American Frontier 130 years later. A Sicario sequel is already in development, but whether Villeneuve attaches remains to be seen (next up for Villeneuve is the Amy Adams/Jeremy Renner led sci-fi, Story of Your Life, and thereafter the much talked about Blade Runner sequel, for which he will team up with Deakins and Jóhannsson once again). Nonetheless, Sicario very quickly distinguishes itself as a quintessential American thriller, the likes of which we’ve come to expect from legendary directors such as Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh.
That is not to say that Sicario is without its flaws, but its flaws are interesting ones; I felt emotionally unattached for a large part of the film, not really flowing with its beats. It wasn’t really until its intense third act that I felt compelled to engage with the pathos of its subtext. When I did, a wave of strong emotion washed over me, the kind of emotion that is the currency of only the very best, most accomplished of directors. In retrospect, I wonder if this was not deliberate and intentional? Given Villeneuve’s track record, I wouldn’t be at all surprised; the film truly began to take shape and form meaning within my mind long after I had watched it.
So, is this truly a flaw, or the mark of genius we have begun to misunderstand due to Hollywood’s cookie cutter formulae in which everything is spelled out, explained and served up on a silver platter? That is for each viewer to decide on her or his own, but it is worth noting that this aspect of the film may frustrate and confuse viewers; it is a rather complex story that is deliberately opaque and obfuscated. In hindsight I’ve come to appreciate this about Sicario. Villeneuve has crafted a masterclass in suspense that takes no prisoners and waits for no man: if you do not pay attention you may miss many of its subtleties and the true, cathartic meaning of one of its seemingly unimportant subplots. All men are pawns in this game; no-one is innocent and everyone is expendable; there is a nefarious cabal that pull the strings, and we never see nor hear of them, but we can feel their ominous presence throughout; they are the true evil whose intention guides all of the other, lesser forms of evil that wreak the havoc we see on the surface.
Sicario is as textured as it is relevant, and while some may find its overly complex plot distracting and frustrating (as I initially did), this perceivable flaw quickly begins to make sense within the context of Mercer’s character and her perception of the confusing new world she must navigate at the onset of her mission: we are confused, as she is, about what she is doing, and why she is doing it. The deeper into the rabbit hole we go, the more terrifying and violent it becomes. If Mercer is our moral compass – America’s conscience, and lack of decisiveness in the face of true evil, if you will – Alejandro is the tip of the spear; a poisoned spear, and one that is driven by Graver, a man who admits that his only purpose is to “shake the tree to cause chaos.”
This terrifying allusion becomes all the more meaningful when one considers what it means in the context of America’s arguably failed war on drugs, and beyond that, its war on terror. While Villeneuve delivers the goods, Sicario begs the question: do you truly wish to see the truth for what it is, or would you rather look away in terror?
Last Updated: October 12, 2015