you're reading...
-[Film Reviews]-, American Independent Cinema, English Language Film Industries

‘Sicario’ (2015): Dennis Villeneuve’s Borderland Crime Saga

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve || Produced by: Basil Iwanyk, 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

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 tales 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.

Sicario finish your meal

Go on and finish your meal.

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 directors of photography 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 principal 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.

sicario montage v the deeper you go the darker it gets

Nothing will make sense to your American ears, and you will doubt everything we do. But in the end, you will understand: Sicario is a masterclass in low-key lighting and nighttime cinematography.

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. 

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. The main cast and soundtrack are almost as strong.

However… a minor, predictable sequence about midway through the film slows things down for a bit.

—> Sicario comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

? 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.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.


14 thoughts on “‘Sicario’ (2015): Dennis Villeneuve’s Borderland Crime Saga

  1. Sweet review and sweet movie. I liked it a lot. I thought Blunt did an outstanding job in a very difficult role. Del Toro and Brolin were both awesome, but their roles, imo, were easier than Blunt’s. The opening raid and the ‘traffic jam at the border’ were both superlative scenes in addition to those mentioned in your review.

    Posted by Robert O. Lincoln | October 16, 2015, 3:31 am


  1. Pingback: ‘Crimson Peak’ (2015): Review | Express Elevator to Hell - November 6, 2015

  2. Pingback: ‘Incendies’ (2010): Review | Express Elevator to Hell - January 1, 2016

  3. Pingback: ‘The Revenant’ (2015): Review | Express Elevator to Hell - January 13, 2016

  4. Pingback: Best of 2015: Everything Old is New Again | Express Elevator to Hell - February 23, 2016

  5. Pingback: ‘Blue Ruin’ (2013) & ‘Green Room’ (2015): Double Review | Express Elevator to Hell - August 14, 2016

  6. Pingback: Rules Aren’t Always Made to be Broken: Top Five Filmmaking Pet-Peeves | Express Elevator to Hell - September 10, 2016

  7. Pingback: ‘Get Out’ (2017): Review | Express Elevator to Hell - March 8, 2017

  8. Pingback: ‘Logan’ (2017): Review | Express Elevator to Hell - March 9, 2017

  9. Pingback: ‘Soldado’ (2018): Review | Express Elevator to Hell - July 3, 2018

  10. Pingback: An American Neo-Frontier Sampling (‘Hell or High Water’ [2016], ‘Wind River’ [2017], ‘Hold the Dark’ [2018]): Triple Review | Express Elevator to Hell - March 11, 2019

  11. Pingback: ‘Baskin’ (2015): The Hell You Carry with You | Express Elevator to Hell - June 29, 2022

  12. Pingback: ‘Athena’ (2022): Violent Revolutions in Long Takes | Express Elevator to Hell - March 2, 2023

Am I spot on? Am I full of it? Let me know!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: