Let me begin with a personal negative. I did not believe Emily Blunt’s character for one minute, but not many who see the film will agree with me. I think it was a studio casting gimmick; let’s put a woman in the central role. It has all the signs of being written for a man and then switched, but the publicity spiel has it the other way around, written for a woman and almost changed to get it green lit.
Blunt acts the part of naïve FBI agent, Kate Macer extremely well. (‘Macer’ a functionary, an official.) She can emote till the tears drown us, but physically this English rose has all the appearance of a haute couture model on a picnic confronted by a raging bull. She simply does not look trained to squash a bug let alone clean, load and fire a machine gun to kill. Perhaps simpering go-to-first Keira Knightly was not available or is unfashionable.
Macer does things by the book. Without that plot quirk there would be no dramatic confrontation, and instead we would be looking at a documentary about illegal USA transgressions into Mexican territory.
Blunt’s presence is countered by Benicio del Toro which means Blunt is not on the screen all of the time, but when she does she is meant to be our eyes and ears and conscience.
Personal reservation aside, Sicario (Mexican for hitman) is a first class political thriller full or surprises and plausible skulduggery. It should be seen with a friend so you can discuss all its implications afterwards. You will hate this film if you believe the USA to be an exceptional nation, as it believes itself to be, free to spurn international law, correct to refuse its war criminals stand trial at the Hague, and free to arm and to fund insurgents and terrorists for the purpose of destabilising or overthrowing socialist democracies.
A large portion of the movie is shot around the obscene fence built by the USA to keep Mexicans from getting in along its southern border, a courageous location to park a honey wagon any day. It’s patrolled by fat, rifle toting red necks who want to keep America pure. Fascinating to see the nation that demanded Gorbachev knock down the Berlin wall, now building a steel wall of its own to keep out impoverished people whose country they destabilised when it seemed to be an economic threat. (Actually, Gorbachev proposed it first but got stiffed on the deal by Reagan and NATO.)
The film defies genre conventions. There’s a wonderfully tense, and bloody shoot-out close to the Juárez border checkpoint created with nothing more than stationary vehicles, the antithesis of chase movies. Another violent sequence takes place underground in a tunnel under the border fence used by drug cartels to ferry cocaine to the masses.
Shot after shot is beautifully moody, composed by the finest of cinematographers, Roger Deakins, a man with over a dozen fine films in his curriculum vitae including Fargo, nominated for an Oscar more times than I’ve sampled two scoops of Ben and Jerry before the adverts. I particularly liked the overhead travel shots taken from a drone camera that show us how abstract and exquisitely impressionistic the land can be from the skies.
The music (hear it foot of the essay) is less music and more atmospheric, a thumping heartbeat ripped apart by a distorted thunder machine, or the deepest growl from a brace of double bass. The effect is menacing. When you hear it you know Death is stalking you. Three cheers for composer Jóhan Jóhannsson; always a delight when so many disparate talents come together yet create an harmonious whole.
Sicario asks whether, when it comes to the drug wars, our notions of spending millions on tracking down dealers and imprisoning abusers is a dreadful waste of time and money. It also asks whether it is judicially acceptable that we kill a few dealers, drug lords, and innocents in the process, and turn a blind eye to it.
That said, Sicario is one of the best political thrillers seen for a long time, and a moral one.
The director is Denis Villeneuve. When he was twenty he spent a year traveling the world’s conflict zones, going from one hot spot to another shooting documentary footage for a Canadian broadcasting company which probably accounts for the semi-documentary style of the film, but without nausea-inducing shaky camera work.
Villeneuve is Canadian, born in a small St Lawrence river rural village. He looks at American gung-ho antics with unsophisticated amazement, like an adolescent losing innocence, and sees how much unaccountable power the USA wields. Unlike many other ‘expose’ films Villeneuve has given us a story that is topical, not one that is safe, made decades after the event.
“I remember being struck for the first time by how everybody is the same and yet reality looks so different depending on your perspective,” the filmmaker recalled. “I came back from that trip knowing I would never know the truth when crossing a border.”
Villeneuve has built a career out of investigating how the place you live in moulds your outlook on life and those around, politically and morally. In 2013’s Prisoners he examined the justifications for torture through the story of a character who embodies both victim and aggressor. In his earlier Oscar-nominated Incendies, his subject matter was the violence of the Middle East from the Christian and Muslim sides.
With Sicario Villeneuve completes what must be his thematic trilogy. He inhabits places of morally scorched earth, where claims of good and evil are hidden from sight, and the guilty are rarely brought to justice.
Written by the actor-turned-screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, (and for once not an adaptation from a novel) Sicario offers tremendous roles to the support ensemble. Josh Brolin, an actor who has a habit of choosing iffy films, a misogynistic bully of a laconic, shadowy government operative, and of course, an even murkier assassin, Benicio del Toro in full-on intense, monosyllabic, brooding mood. His single issue assignment is incredibly powerful in expression, chilling in depiction of its concentrated goal and its brutal ending.
The film portrays the so-called war on drugs as an existential minefield; so-called because there is evidence the power elite benefit from its continuation. It sucks in people with even the best of intentions and in turn causes them to exhibit the worst in themselves. The group is out to capture a Mexican drug kingpin, but we see the game get bigger, the stakes higher, and the motives highly questionable.
Shortly after they first meet, Macer asks Alejandro (del Toro) for details of her assignment. “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, just keep an eye on the time,” he answers enigmatically. By the end of the film, we understand how the whole rotten system works, in that its dysfunction and conflicting interests is legalised criminality.
Keeping five stars for the all-time great, Sicario gets four and a half.
- Star rating: 4 and a half
- Director: Denis Velleneuve
- Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
- Screenplay: Taylor Sheridan
- Time: 2 hours
- Music: Johan Johannsson
- Soundtrack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCb2pKgNXd8