Directed by: Denis Villeneuve || Produced by: Basil Iwnyk, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill, Edward McDonnell, Molly Smith
Screenplay by: Taylor Sheridan || Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernandez, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo Hank Rogerson, Bernardo P. Saracino
Music by: Johann Johannsson || Cinematography by: Roger Deakins || Edited by: Joe Walker || Country: United States || Language: English, Spanish
Running Time: 121 minutes
Sometimes, I like my movies dark. Do you know what I mean? Not just dark in terms of actual lighting or emotional atmosphere, but true humanistic darkness where our point-of-view characters descend into the sewers of human society and conflict, where the normal laws of order and morality become so bent and twisted they are no longer recognizable. As one supporting character notes in an ominous conversation in Sicario, characters aren’t so much crossing ethical boundaries as they are journeying into a realm where those boundaries have been pushed far away. Stories of this tone and grit include Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979, itself an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness), David Fincher’s breakout film, Se7en (1995), David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007), and now Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario. Villeneuve’s crime-drama, detailing the modern drug-war conflict along the US-Mexican border, is as foreboding and disturbing as the seediest tale from the depths of cinematic history. It is that dark, and more importantly it is that great.
Given how the 2015 holiday season is just getting started, you can imagine how excited I am for the remainder of this year’s line-up if these are goods October alone has in store for us. I knew Villeneuve’s star was on the rise after a succession of well received hits like Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), and Enemy (2013), but this guy caught me by surprise with this dynamite movie. Given the film’s blood-soaked subject matter (cartel warfare and seedy CIA operations), it won’t readily appeal to everybody, but everybody in their right mind should respect this piece for the sheer amount of drama, tension, and chills it generates.
There are several key ingredients to this movie’s success: (1) Taylor Sheridan writes a lean, mean script with relatable fish-out-of-water protagonists and fascinating supporting characters, (2) Roger Deakins, one of the best cinematographers working today, designs some brilliant action sequences and night-time cinematography, (3) Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson orchestrates a dire, foreboding score as grim as Deakins’ visuals, and finally (4) Villeneuve gathers all these elements and fine tunes them into a well paced, emotional film that favors thematic mood as much as strong character development.
What most viewers don’t seem to understand, and what I keep reiterating on this site, is that the aforementioned are all far better factors for determining a movie’s quality than, say, its cast. Big-name stars and lead actors are what attract (or repel) mainstream audiences, but great actors can just as easily waste great talent on terrible scripts and mediocre directors with minimal involvement in the finished product. If a great story and visual framework is already in place by a great director, producer, screenwriter, and/or cinematographer, then a casts’ talent can come into play and elevate the project further, as is the case here with principle players Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and especially Benecio del Toro.
The former, Blunt, is our introduction to and POV in this dark, morally ambiguous tale, a wild-eyed and bushy-tailed greenhorn FBI-agent who follows castmembers’ Brolin and del Toro into another veritable heart of darkness. Blunt plays an interesting, sympathetic, if hopelessly naive character who’s far more layered than her one-dimensional heroine in Edge of Tomorrow (2014). Blunt’s persona evolves, or more accurately, unravels as the story spirals downward into a world of gruesome cartel murders, CIA cloak-and-daggers espionage, and blurred allegiances where friends are kept close, but enemies so much closer.
Brolin is akin to Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now, an eccentric, charismatic authority figure who revels in these shades of grey and the blessings of legal immunity. He also wears flip-flops to Department of Defense meetings. On the opposite but no less threatening end of the spectrum is del Toro’s take on Marlon Brando’s Colonel Curtz: A mysterious, intimidating, unknowable force lurking on the edge of the narrative until the film’s final act, whereupon the actor becomes a machine, a terrifying, enigmatic predator who stalks his prey with deliberate methodology. He is patient, he is persistent, and he is lethal.
At times I’m not sure whether a particular scene’s genius is more attributable to Villeneuve’s blocking or Deakins’ lighting and framework. The use of silence and music in nearly every sequence is impeccable, like a nighttime mission where del Toro’s silhouette walks down a tunnel in near total darkness, the only illumination being the navy blue sky emphasizing the dagger in his hand. Another great visual comes a bit earlier when several delta force operatives (along with our three leads) descend down a hill at sunset, slowly fading into blackness, as if they were treading lower into hell itself. Then there is perhaps my favorite shot in the whole film where del Toro places Blunt’s own sidearm to her throat, and at the same time wipes away her tears of fear and desperation with his other hand.
And that’s all just from the film’s final act, of which I’ve barely scratched the surface.
My only complaints about Sicario concern a short lull in the action that occurs about 2/3 through the film. Blunt and FBI-partner Daniel Kaluuya attempt some R&R, which allows for some brief respite from the otherwise never-ending onslaught of creepy feels; however, the final altercation that occurs at the end of this sequence has minimal impact on the main plot and doesn’t do much beyond emphasizing just how entrenched corruption and the threat of paralegal violence is on both sides of the border. It adds further cool intrigue, but in my opinion, it could’ve been cut. Kill your darlings, as they say.
Then again, it’s hard to complain too much about the film’s one lackluster section when you have true edge-of-your-seat, nail-biting sequences like transporting a high-ranking cartel chief across the US-Mexican border, all the while pursuing gangsters hide in plain sight and turncoat Mexican officers prowl along the edge of every vehicle. This is what the film is about, intensity and foreboding, at maximum force and with extreme prejudice.
Sicario is one of the best films of the year and one of the finest crime-dramas in recent memory. It’s as good as or better than anything Martin Scorsese’s put out in years, and matches the creepiest visuals and most disturbing themes from even David Fincher’s famed filmography. It’s that good. Sicario should be on everyone’s Top 10 list for 2015, it’s a shoe-in nomination for Best Director and Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, and del Toro may be looking at another Oscar for himself. Have fun everyone.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Denis Villeneuve arms himself with a great script and great camerawork courtesy of Sheridan and Deakins, respectively, and under his leadership its a formula that refuses to fail. Sicario is taught, vicious, and goes for the throat at every turn, boasting incredible action sequences and some of the best nighttime cinematography around. Blunt, Brolin, and del Toro fill out well written characters that are as diverse as they are fascinating. The former provides our POV (and a refreshingly realistic female protagonist, for once), the middle is our sardonic exposition and comic relief, and the latter is one of the most formidable and morally decrepit badasses since Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004). Johann Johannsson’s soundtrack is one of the best of the year as well. It’s so creepy, yet so irresistible.
— However… a minor sequence about midway through the film slows things down for a bit. It’s the lone instance where the film becomes predictable.
—> Sicario assassinates MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.
? You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is the land of wolves now.