Sicario is a 2015 action-drama-thriller film, directed by acclaimed up-and-comer Denis Villianueve, starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, and Josh Brolin. Named after the Spanish word for “hitman,” Sicario is a brutally dark look into the world of violent drug cartels and the people who fight against them. Kate Mercer is a by-the-books FBI SWAT officer who is voluntarily thrust into a world which eventually shatters everything she thought she knew about the rule of law, morality, and justice. After a successful raid on a cartel property in Arizona, Mercer is approached and recruited to join an interagency task force led by “DOJ advisor” Matt Greaver. Mercer also meets the mysterious “specialist” Alejandro. What ensues as a result of this is perhaps one of the most unflinchingly violent and dire films ever produced for American cinema.
Villianueve continues his hot streak, with the French-Canadian auteur having previously directed his American debut, 2011’s Prisoners, a great, but not so uplifting thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, and 2013’s think piece drama Enemy, also starring Gyllenhaal. Though I haven’t, and most likely won’t ever see Enemy, Prisoners was a masterfully directed, extremely well-shot, well-acted, tightly wound, masterful thriller wrought with tension and anger. I can’t say I enjoyed it in the traditional sense, but it was a freaking great movie. I essentially have the same to say about Sicario, save for the fact it was better than Prisoners in every single way.
The cinematography by 12-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins is amazing, which was expected. Sicario evokes fond memories of one of my favorite movies of all time, the Coen Brothers’ magnum opus, No Country For Old Men. Though gut-wrenchingly intense and downright disgusting at points, Deakins uses the truly beautiful landscape of Mexico to beautiful effect. There are several high elevation tracking/establishing shots throughout the film that are absolutely enthralling. Deakins also employs an interesting technique I don’t think I’ve seen done before, at least not so prominently. Instead of using the camera as an omniscient being as most films do, the camera is simply an observer of sorts. This is evidenced by the fact that some shots, for example, of Blunt’s character entering a car, will be from the perspective of the backseat, with the camera essentially peering through the front windshield. This type of shot may or may not have been done before in other films, but I doubt with as much prominence or length as in Sicario. Another amazing, yet trivial thing I noticed: nighttime. In pretty much every other film, scenes at night are awkwardly lit like daytime, so viewers are able to see actors and their actions with perfect clarity because of halo-esque illumination, never mind that the scene takes place at 2:30 in the freaking A.M. There’s one scene in the movie, that in fact stands out to me as hands down the best scene in the entire film, that depicts a nighttime raid on a tunnel by U.S. Special Forces operators. It was actual night. No, you couldn’t see their faces most of the time, but can someone explain to me why I would need to see the face of Unnamed Delta #27? Unnamed Delta #27 gonna die, so he won’t care. The tunnel sequence is just phenomenal, from the natural not-so lighting, to the tense tunnel entry that made me want to go home and play Ghost Recon really, really badly, to the chaotic, intentionally confusing shootout in the actual tunnel, everyone I went with was on edge the entire time, although the PA I went with is not that big a fan of violence, so it didn’t take much to get her wound up, so… (I’m gonna catch so much hell from her for this, but I don’t care, it’s hilarious.)
But seriously, one thing you have to know about Sicario, it IS NOT MESSING AROUND! The first five minutes go from intense, to disgusting and disturbing, to intensely disgusting and disturbing. Near the end of the opening scene, my PA, literally squealing, turns to me and goes, “I friggin’ hate you right now, man! What have you gotten me into?” I can’t blame her, though, the same thing was actually running through my mind. I knew it would get intense, but stuff got real REEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAALLLY fast! I don’t want to spoil it for you, but… hand. Holy Mother, the hand! Everything about the violence in this movie is some level of effed up. I admire the fact that this film held nothing back, short of a water jug. I will never look at an office water cooler the same way again. I’m dead serious. Another review made a comparison to the famous and well-regarded Apocalypse Now, which explored the horror of the Vietnam War through the eyes of a young and disturbed captain in the U.S. Army. Though apt, and probably the most accurate parallel to be made here, I disagree. Sicario is more intense and disturbing than Apocalypse in every way imaginable. Apocalypse ends, and is entirely propelled by,
That’s very, very messed up, but the second to last scene of Sicario depicts
Sicario, like many of its characters, isn’t interested in morals. It’s interested in making a big statement: The War On Drugs is completely messed up on both sides. None of the characters are heroes, almost none of them can be described as giving a crap about the rule of law or even basic human decency. Sicario’s potentially accident-inducing highway scene isn’t what makes it the standout movie of the year so far for me (Don’t hate me, I have yet to see The Martian). The debut script by Taylor Sheridan effectively makes you empathize with every important character on some level, even if that character is a completely remorseless, unhinged psychopath with skills that make Jason Bourne look like an eight-year-old ballerina. Josh Brolin’s character of Matt is even more of a bastard than Alejandro, but, to be honest, I understood and accepted his methods in certain situations throughout the film.
Speaking of empathy, I cannot end this review without giving the cast the praise they deserve. Blunt and Brolin do wonderful work playing two characters with complete opposite views of how the world works, Maximillio Hernandez, who Marvel nerds may recognize as the traitorous S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell, plays a corrupt cop who is also a devoted family man. Also popping up for a pleasant surprise is Jeffery Donovan, known for playing C.I.A. agent Michael Westen on the hit USA series Burn Notice, in the mold breaking role as… a mysterious and quirky C.I.A. operative.
The real star of the film, to no one’s real surprise, is Benicio del Toro, who, according to some, is “like the Puerto Rican Brad Pitt.” I actually don’t disagree with this comparison, they honestly look strikingly similar at various points throughout the film. Del Toro has been known for playing his fair share of eccentric/charming characters in his career, such as Che Guevara in Che and The Collector in The Guardians of the Galaxy. To me, he will always be the fast-talking, ill-fated Freddie Fenster in my favorite film of all time, The Usual Suspects, but I digress. In Sicario, Alejandro is not charming, nor does he come off as particularly eccentric. Alejandro is a monster, once a man, turned remarkably cold, brutal, and uncaring by his tortured psyche. There are several scenes with Alejandro where the film drifts from thriller territory and dips into horror. Some parts of this film are legitimately disturbing and uncomfortable, and it is all due to the way del Toro flawlessly plays the probable clinical psychotic.
Quite simply, Sicario is the best film I’ve seen in quite some time. Everyone should go see it, but you should also be warned you won’t leave the theater feeling uplifted. Instead, you will probably want to go home and hug everyone you hold near and dear to you. It was still an awesome movie, just an extremely dark one. Don’t worry, I plan to see The Martian the weekend after next, which I hear is a lot more uplifting and actually funny.