2015, R, 121 mins.
2015, R, 121 mins.
Emily Blunt as Kate Macer / Josh Brolin as Matt / Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro / Daniel Kaluuya as Reggie / Jon Bernthal as Ted
Directed by Denis Villeneuve / Written by Taylor Sheridan
Quebec born filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has a better knack than perhaps any other director for tapping into the darker underbelly of the human psyche, and he does so with a brutally uncompromising authenticity.
last two films, PRISONERS and ENEMY,
explored the nature of paranoia and distrust and how those feelings bring
out the worst and most cruel aspects of people when placed in pressure
cooker situations. Villeneuve
never soft-pedals his material for mass popular consumption; he’s more
interested in fully exploring the question of morality and the unraveling
of ethical order in society. In
many ways, there are no clear-cut, black and white heroes and villains in
his films…just uneasy and uncertain shades of grey.
new film SICARIO continues the thematic undercurrents of his past films,
this time, though, he’s honing in on US/Mexican border warfare on the drug
trafficking front. Much akin
to PRISONERS and ENEMY, SICARIO never once seems compelled to pathetically
and lazily cater to lowest common denominator audience tastes and
film is rooted in the dreary depths of the whole multi-country drug war
and exposing the level of seedy corruption – on both sides of the law
– that often defines it. Steven
Soderbergh’s Oscar winning TRAFFIC did much of the same 15 years ago,
but Villeneuve takes it a few steps further in showcasing the de-evolution
of justice and order when law makers and enforcement use highly
questionable means to achieve their end games in nabbing hard-to-reach
targets. The central moral
quandary of SICARIO is an ageless one -
when does the ends justify the means and how far is one willing to
go to achieve order in society? – but the manner that Villeneuve explores
it (without directly having simple answers) gives the film a cynical
heartbeat and a haunting sense of large scale hopelessness.
opens with a few title cards explaining the meaning of its title, the
first of which refers to zealots in ancient Jerusalem that killed Roman
invaders and the second being a Mexican word for “hit man.”
Villeneuve then shifts into the film’s masterfully staged and
sensational opening sequence, during which time the director displays his
full aptitude for choreographing action sequences of nail biting suspense.
Kate Macer (a rock solid and as assured as ever Emily Blunt) is an
FBI agent who heads up a kidnap-response squad that is leading a raid on a
target home in Chandler, Arizona. While looking for hostages – and after a remarkably bloody and intense shootout with some of the perpetrators – her team makes a
ghastly discovery: dozens of dead and decomposed bodies, all wrapped in
plastic, have been stored vertically in-between the walls of the home.
But, who did this to these poor souls and why? The film’s haunting and nerve jangling introduction does a bravura
job of cementing the story’s tone right from the get-go.
before Kate and her team have the opportunity to take in their findings
and begin piecing together the evidence, a massive backyard explosion
occurs, killing some and wounding many others.
In the aftermath Kate finds herself being recruited by a shadowy
veteran agent Matt (Josh Brolin), who makes a promise to Kate that they
will bring down the man responsible. Matt offers her a chance to join his team, comprised of
another mysterious agent Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose origins and
motives are never fully revealed right from the beginning.
Matt’s plan is to use a by-any-means-necessary approach to lure out
drug kingpin Manuel Diaz (the man most likely responsible for the mass
Arizona kidnappings and murders) by essentially kidnapping his brother from
a Juarez jail to “interrogate” him for information.
Of course, Matt informs Kate that their central mission is pure of
heart in terms of stopping a Mexican cartel leader, but deep down he has
other seedier objectives that he never reveals to her, leaving her growing
increasingly disillusioned in the process.
Kate enthusiastically joins Matt’s squad with a hungered passion
to stop the man responsible for slaying her fellow agents, but Matt
refuses, as more time goes by, to disclose the true nature of their mission. The longer Kate submerges herself in Matt’s team the more
her conscience is shattered with multiple revelations that the war on
drugs is not only unwinnable, but has evil forces beyond the criminals
Sheridan’s script is chillingly ruthless in the manner that it thrusts Kate
into the heart of darkness that is her mission with Matt’s squad,
carefully and meticulously crafting Kate’s slow decent into confusion
and anxiety as she begins to realize her place in the mission and the
utter futility of even attempting to do the “right and honorable thing.” The bleak, but
powerful, message at SICARIO’s core is how a good and decent law abiding
people become corrupted by the very forces they have sworn to work
within as they face off against criminals who are arguably just as corrupt as
their handlers. Villeneuve and Sheridan maliciously twist viewers from one
extreme to another, which gives their film such a ruthlessly hard edge of
trepidation throughout. Are
Matt’s methods truly justifiable in his country’s war on drugs?
Should Kate essentially sell her soul to such dishonest methodology
if it means positive results? Moreover,
can the war on drugs – regardless of the duplicitous methods used – be
won in the first place? These
damning questions are ultimately rooted in futility and all out despair;
by the time the film ends there’s no sobering and comforting sense that
any side has “succeeded” or “won.”
SICARIO, if anything, is about what happens when there are no
discernable rules of engagement in a murky and convoluted war without any
apparent end in sight.
always commanded intrinsically empowered performances from all of his
actors in his past films, SICARIO being no exception whatsoever.
Blunt, serving as the audience surrogate and moral center, becomes
the tragic and beleaguered soul of the film in how she shows Kate’s
mental implosion in succumbing to the temptation of bringing evil doers to
justice without fully comprehending the extent of what those actions
entail. Blunt is arguably one
of the finest actresses for combining raw toughness, headstrong
confidence, tenderness and wounded vulnerability, which she assertively
displays in full force here. Josh
Brolin is also strong playing his tricky role of Matt, a man that
outwardly and initially seems to be a lawman with pure motives, but deep
down hides his inherent corruption (the actor never once telegraphs his
part one way or another, which keeps the viewer constantly guessing).
And then there’s the brilliant Del Toro, who constantly seems to
be lurking and staring with a frighteningly calm resolve throughout much
of the film. It’s a marvel
to see how he manages to create an unnerving character using subtle body
language, especially when the script – at first – doesn’t reveal too
much about him in terms of back-story.
Like a caged animal that you’re never quite sure when will be
sprung loose, Del Toro accentuates SICARIO’s escalating sense of almost
sadistic unease; he’s so calculatingly terrifying here without using
broad performance strokes to underscore it.
also as technically proficient as any filmmaker working today.
Something needs to be said about the way he frames the action in his films. So many –
pathetically, make that too many – modern film directors rely on over-caffeinated
visuals and seizure-inducing editorial overkill when it comes to
presenting the mayhem on screen, but Villeneuve is far too wise to fall victim to
such overused directorial gimmicks. His
action sequences are clean and precise and are typified by elegant camera
pans…and when the violence comes it’s lightning quick and barbaric and
never once celebrates it for sensationalistic effect.
One mid-story sequence – a tour de force shootout between cops
and Mexican enforcers at a jam-packed border crossing – reinforces
Villeneuve’s complete command over his craft.
Complimenting him is veteran Roger Deakins’ lush and
sprawling cinematography, which gives this otherwise corrupt and ugly
themed film frequent moments of painterly beauty.
As an examination of the bleak worldview of the war on drugs, SICARIO is audaciously intense, incredibly performed, evocatively directed, and, most importantly, morally ambiguous. The film’s inherently depressing climax offers very little in the way of emotional solace or a sensation of dramatic closure. If anything, it enhances the menagerie of lies and deceit that Kate finds herself surrounded by and trapped within…and with no apparent hope in sight. SICARIO never once adheres to Hollywood genre norms or troupes, and it’s infinitely better for it. I was thoroughly depressed and exhausted after watching it, which just may be the point. Villenueve doesn’t shy away from the harshness of his films; he fully embraces and harnesses it with surgical precision and is clearly working on a whole other upper qualitative echelon apart from his filmmaking contemporaries.
SICARIO is proof positive of that.