French Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve scores another box office hit with critically acclaimed Sicario. The rare genre item to have had a successful premiere as a Main Competition title at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Villeneuve hit up the Toronto International Film Festival just prior to a theatrical release where the title collected nearly fifty million in the domestic box office (superseding the modest thirty million dollar budget). A well constructed action thriller dealing with a familiar drug cartel narrative, Taylor Sheridan’s manipulative screenplay makes intriguing use of a cyphered protagonist.
We’re informed up front Sicario is a word hailing from ancient Jerusalem, applied to those that hunted Romans, but today the word means hitman in Mexico. Enter FBI agent Kate Macy (Emily Blunt), head of a unit specializing in kidnapping, in the midst of a bust in Arizona. But her team stumbles upon something more grisly, a home owned by a leading member of the Sonora drug cartel stuffed with decomposing corpses in the walls. The raid is considered a success, and it results in her boss (Victor Garber) handing her over to the leaders of a top secret mission run by Matt (Josh Brolin), a CIA operative irritatingly vague about their goal. Macy only knows they want to stir up trouble to cause a man called Diaz, owner of the home, to travel back to Mexico to consult with the big boss. They follow Diaz and nab the head of the snake. Another mysterious figure along for the ride is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who describes the need to catch Diaz’s boss as akin to finding a vaccine.
Working once more with DoP Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s Sicario feels even more ominously beautiful in its superb framing, with a handful of highly engrossing action sequences, including a tightly choreographed flight across the Mexico/US border. A shot of operatives walking into the horizon as their shadows melt into the darkness at the bottom of the frame is also one of many gorgeously hued moments bleeding across the screen. And yet, as technically assured as all of this is, including one of the tensest scores to feature in a genre picture in recent memory (courtesy of Johann Johannsson), Sicario feels too hollow.
Cast performances are enjoyable, but since everyone has potential secret agendas, we don’t learn much about any of them. Josh Brolin is in his usual smarmy amusing mode, while we can project a bit of brittle humanity onto Benicio Del Toro. The lead protagonist is Emily Blunt, an expert FBI agent caught up in a world where nothing, as usual, is what it seems. But for someone so adept, someone defined by her experience, Sheridan’s script illogically handicaps her as the consummate do-gooder, a straight arrow so unflinching she’s unable to rightly discern what’s going on before her very eyes.
One could say Villeneuve and Sheridan have intentionally presented a passive female character, an innocent shaped, morphed, and ruined by the men all around her. However, deeper readings tends to feel like clutching at straws here. When given the opportunity, Blunt’s Kate Macy makes all the wrong choices, not thinking clearly as she’s warned against storming into a bank, for instance. Though Blunt’s performance is solid, the ‘relationship’ the script forces on her and Del Toro is also handled without finesse. Early on he slyly comments Macy reminds him of someone dear to him. We find out who and then we have another repeated sequence of this, the moment now desperate to convey an emotional response.
“It’s brilliant, what they do,” another agent comments in reference to cartel violence as we witness several decapitated bodies hanging from a bridge. And Sicario nearly streamlines this brilliance, conveying the repugnant, horrific reality to great effect. But whatever mind games are being played between the film’s characters, they aren’t anything we haven’t seen already, even considering the importance of its lead female character.
Lionsgate releases its hot property in high-definition 2.40:1 with 2.0 Dolby Digital Audio, so the sound and picture quality sounds amazing on the appropriate home entertainment system. It’s definitely a nicely packaged Blu-ray, DVD, and digital combo of the film. A quartet of extra features are also included.
Stepping into Darkness – The Visual Design of Sicario:
A sixteen minute feature finds Villeneuve and Sheridan discussing the visual designs of the film.
Blunt, Brolin & Benecio – Portraying the Characters of Sicario:
Director and multiple cast members discuss characterizations of the film with focus on the three leads.
Battle Zone – The Origins of Sicario:
This thirteen minute feature finds Villeneuve and Sheridan discussing the genesis of the script.
A Pulse from the Desert – The Score of Sicario:
A six minute feature finds Villeneuve discussing his ideas for the score he wanted, representative of threat.
For those underwhelmed by Sicario‘s simplified narrative on a first screening, be sure to take another look after the hubbub has died down. As with the beefed up pulp that was his 2013 film Prisoners, Villeneuve’s impressive craftsmanship (aided, of course, by Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography and a marvelously menacing score from Johan Johannsson) is what makes the title a standout of its genre.
Film Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆