Law enforcement battles with drug cartels tend to be the focal point of bullet-ridden crime thrillers with strong “Type A” heroes and despicable villains and a handful of characters who cross the line between the two. “Sicario,” on the other hand, is good-and-evil gray area for endless miles.
Director Denis Villeneuve, who caught audiences by surprise in 2013 with the superb crime thriller “Prisoners,” returns with a film equally as intrigued with the ugly truth and that cares less about placating its audience and more about unsettling it.
Emily Blunt plays an idealistic FBI agent who is recruited and ultimately volunteers for a high-level government operation to take down a Mexican drug cartel. She soon discovers, however, that the mission is more clandestine than she bargained for and that the men in charge, played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro, don’t share her same scruples.
Villeneuve puts debut writer Taylor Sheridan’s script on a low simmer. He is patient and methodical with the camera, taking a procedural approach that both combats and complements a story about whether breaking the rules is okay if it effectively accomplishes the goal. All of his lingering creates these moments to let these questions of morality sink in as the story develops.
Consequently, the action and suspense of “Sicario” don’t bare the same Hollywood hallmarks of most films in this genre. Villeneuve does not intend for the action to be exciting or entertaining. The violence is not glorified but dreadful and unsettling; much of it is actually withheld from the screen. The suspense naturally ferments from it all, rather than Villeneuve deliberately controlling the pacing.
The marriage of Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins proves fruitful yet again; the texture, color and light of the film are impeccable and Villeneuve savors the best of it. A tunnel raid sequence splicing “normal,” night and thermal vision is memorable for what you don’t see as much as for what you do.
Blunt’s subdued and understated performance echoes the understated tone of the film. She is vulnerable and shaken throughout the story yet exudes poise and self- confidence for a character swimming in a man-infested world and being forced to question everything she believes in. The film’s commentary on sexism is subtle but wildly apparent to the keen viewer.
Brolin and Del Toro also nail the thin moral line of their respective characters, with Del Toro expertly cast as the cutthroat and shadowy Alejandro. You expect something menacing to emerge from such a formidable character actor, but his casting merely threatens such an explosion. Instead, we get something equally as effective but even-handed and chillingly reined in.
“Sicario” shakes its audience from complacency in so many respects with these performances and stunning visuals. Nothing stays within the audience’s comfort zone in terms of genre convention or even story for that matter. What is “right” or who is “right” are complex concepts in this film, not reliable constants. “Sicario” will unnerve just about everyone who sees it, but it also appropriately pushes its audience to expand its perspective and leave room for moral growth.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin