Emily Blunt is tired. Emily Blunt is scared. Emily Blunt has seen the ideals that formed the very basis of her career brought into question as if they were the conflict she was trying to prevent. Emily Blunt really needs a damn cigarette. Or at least Kate Mercer, the FBI SWAT team leader Blunt plays in Sicario, really needs a cigarette. We’re told nothing about Kate other than that she’s divorced with no children. When not in uniform, she wears the same grey t-shirt for most of the movie. Sicario does everything it can to make the beautiful and charismatic Blunt look like your everyday female. This is important, because it provides a human lens through which the viewer can experience the film.
French-Canadian master of tension Dennis Villenueve has already proved himself to be a delicate filmmaker unafraid of taking risks, and Sicario is certainly his riskiest film yet. It takes a hopeless, apolitical approach to what’s generally seen as a global political issue. The opening sequence finds Kate and her team raiding a cartel house on the American side of the border. Shots are fired, a bomb goes off, and 40+ bodies are found decomposing within the walls. Kate goes outside to vomit from the stench; a stench we can almost experience due to the harrowing, naturalistic brand of photography Villenueve and DP Roger Deakins shoot the film with. One of Kate’s teammates asks her how she wants them to write this up. “By the books”, Blunt says err- bluntly, as she wipes the last bit of vomit from her lips.
The whole “by the books” vs. “outside the confines of the law” debate runs rampant throughout Sicario. Kate is extremely idealistic, mostly because she hasn’t had any experience working on the other side of the border. She joins a team charged by two mysterious men who have said experience- both played pitch-perfectly by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro. This team sets out to stop, or at least marginally annoy, a drug lord by kicking ass on both sides of the border. I can’t say much more about the plot, and seeing as it’s a Villenueve film, it should come as little surprise that everything and everyone isn’t exactly what/who they seem. It’s within this rather typical premise that Sicario uses its pessimism to force us to accept some of its statements, most notably that “you cut one head off the snake, and it grows two new ones”.
Of course, you don’t have to think about the film within a larger context to enjoy it. Sicario is one of the most tightly made action thrillers I’ve ever seen. We never lose perspective during shootouts and much like Mad Max: Fury Road from earlier this year, the editing is done in a way that allows us to see what’s happening but doesn’t make it too clear so to lose the scenes sense of chaos. Deakins’ photographic talent is on full display, perhaps even more so than in Prisoners, his previous collaboration with Villenueve that saw the DP score an Oscar nom. There are many beautiful landscape and birds-eye shots of the areas surrounding the border on both sides. But the clearest achievement from the Villenueve-Deakins-Joe Walker (editor) trio comes during the already infamous “tunnel scene”. Using a combination of night-vision, thermal-vision, and regular-ass vision; the films most intense sequence never allows you to feel comfortable even when things slow down a bit, cutting flawlessly between the different experimental shooting tactics.
The performances in Sicario are intense as well. Blunt does everything she can with the little the script gives her (which, again, is sort of the whole point to her character). Hollywood is selling her as the new badass action female, but her role here is very different from what she did in Edge of Tomorrow. She’s not comfortable or really in control of everything. She quickly realizes she’s being used by her superiors, at one point to nearly catastrophic results (this movie has the craziest almost-sex scene I’ve ever seen). Josh Brolin is the cynical leader of the team, which is understandable given his years of witnessing the horrors the film shows us. But the real star here is Del Toro, whose motivations are held back for most of the film until the shocking climax. Benicio hasn’t been this captivating since Traffic or The Usual Suspects. He’s photographed in a way that makes him look larger than life, and his calm yet furious demeanor prevents you from ever taking your eyes off him when he’s on screen.
If there’s one gripe I have with the films narrative strategy, it’s the decision towards the end to ultimately show the drug lord we had really only heard about to that point. I believe this takes some of the power away from the aforementioned “cut the head of the snake…” metaphor. With that being said, his appearance brings about perhaps the films most disturbing scene. Nobody is safe in Sicario. Not children. Not women. Nobody. And the film shows absolutely no hope or alternative strategy for handling the drug trade that plagues -as we’re shown here- multiple nations. At one point, Brolin’s character says something along the lines of “Until 20% of the world stops shooting and snorting this shit, what hope is there?”
After all the twists and turns end in Sicario, we’re left with what is possibly the films most powerful moment. A young boy living just on the Mexican side of the border, whom we’ve already seen effected by the tragedies that previously unfolded, is playing in a soccer match. In the distance we hear machine gun fire and an explosion. The game stops. The parents, coaches, and children all looks towards the sounds. But only for a second. It’s nothing new, and the game continues.
There’s no forward progress happening in Sicario, because forward progress isn’t possible in what’s been labeled as the “war on drugs”. This is the kind of crime movie we need more of, both as an entertainment spectacle and a think piece. Take a bow, Dennis Villenueve.