MOVIE REVIEW: Sicario
"SICARIO"-- 5 STARS
The brief opening credits of "Sicario" explain that film's title stems from the Hebrew term "sicarii" labeling "Jewish zealots." In Spanish, "sicario" translates to "hitman." True to both the definitions of zealot and hitman, Denis Villenueve's film is a fanatical and uncompromising film that is lethal in its message and pursuit. Even with its fictional basis, take everything you think you know about Mexican drug cartels, the war on drugs, and what it takes to combat both fronts and throw it out the window with a film like this one. Topical, mysterious, and startling in every way, "Sicario" has an edge of intensity not matched by any film yet this year.
Emily Blunt stars as FBI SWAT agent Kate Macer. She and her partner Reggie (British actor Daniel Kaluuya) are part of a kidnapping and recovery team working the border regions of Arizona. As a female and rule-follower, Kate shows her leadership and mettle in a grisly discovery and house bomb scene in Chandler, Arizona. Her superior, Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) recommends her to the regional Department of Defense adviser Matt Craven (Academy Award nominee Josh Brolin). The loose and chipper Craven is assembling a team of elite agents from multiple agencies to respond to the man responsible for incident. In order to gain legitimacy from the FBI, Craven needs Kate to volunteer. Heart-set on making a difference and getting to the bottom of what happened to her and her team in Chandler, Kate accepts. Watching over her and Craven is the enigmatic and soulful Alejandro Gillick, played by Academy Award winner Benicio del Toro as a man of all serious business with no clear rank, affiliation, or agenda. Everyone the team encounters or questions seems to know Alejandro and Kate doesn't know why (just yet).
This new operation and endeavor takes Kate deeper and darker into what is really happening to combat the Mexican cartels that plague both sides of the border. She learns her previous FBI work is merely clean-up and aftermath to the true front line battles. Needless to say, Kate has a hard time accepting and comprehending the underbelly of what Craven and Alejandro represent that she is seeing for the first time. The deeper she goes, the worse it gets. Borders are blurred. Policies and rules are relaxed or ignored. Risks go up. Souls are lost and body counts climb. Money escalates and tactics are questionable. Agendas are revealed and no quarter is given from either side. To tell you specifics would be a crime. Strap in and see "Sicario" for yourself.
Shot by 12-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, the best in the business from "Skyfall" and "The Shawshank Redemption," and paced by a throbbing musical score by Johann Johannson ("The Theory of Everything" Oscar nominee), "Sicario" splashes its unsavory agenda onto a canvas of remarkable beauty. From the dust reflecting off indoor light to the soaring desert skies, Deakins can make "Sicario" look like a grand Western until Johannson's symphony of dread reminds you that you are long way from the simplicity of white hats versus black hats and a guaranteed happy ending. Take a listen to Johannson's work right here and try to not have the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. The film can swing at one moment from a scene of domestic life or preparation to a fiery scene of criminal confrontation where the bullets fly with uncompromising skill and grace. That artistic combination is perfect to give this film its unyielding and dangerous tone.
Credit for combining these creative brushstrokes into an enthralling thriller goes to Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. "Sicario" premiered in competition at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival in May and its reputation has only grown since. Villeneuve has built a steadily impressive resume of shockers, including the Jake Gyllenhaal features "Prisoners" and "Enemy," as well as his 2010 foreign language film "Incendies." This is his best to date and he's already being tapped for the long-gestating "Blade Runner" sequel. The man knows edgy like Whitman knows poetry.
The acting is top notch in this special kind of hell. Blunt is, naturally, our Dante being shown the underworld while Brolin is our twisted Virgil. Both are superb. Their morals and goals butt against and challenge the other's. All the while, Benicio del Toro steals the show as the guy who's already been to hell and back. Greater than his Oscar-winning performance in "Traffic" from fifteen years ago, you can't take your eyes off of him. He takes off that suit, puts on his tactical gear, and transforms. Alejandro knows where Kate is heading and can only soften the blow so much, especially with lines like "Nothing will make sense to your American ears." Del Toro holds every scene in his clutches as the unpredictable wildcard of entwined menace befitting a man scarred on the inside and out. After playing oddballs and caricatures in "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Savages," this is a welcome return to quality and depth.
"Sicario" is a raw labyrinth of grit and surprises created by "Sons of Anarchy" actor Taylor Sheridan in his first feature film screenplay. This film is a python of suspense. Just when you think the film can't squeeze you any tighter, it chokes you even more. More brutal than even "Zero Dark Thirty" for its take on terrorism and torture, "Sicario" resets the bar as the best and finest film on drug warfare that Hollywood has ever attempted. The real-life problems have escalated since 2000's "Traffic" and the film opens eyes to show the worsening condition. "Sicario" is steely, seedy, scary, and jarring in its underlying social and political commentary to bore that out. It's the kind of film that will make you never want to visit Mexico or live in Arizona or Texas. "Sicario" punches that strongly. You will see this film on many year-end lists, including this very website's, as one of the best films of 2015.
LESSON #1: DON'T F--K WITH BENICIO DEL TORO-- It doesn't matter if he's playing a boorish snob in stuff like "Guardians of the Galaxy" or a motormouth in "The Usual Suspects." Benicio del Toro is ready. He's like that "Kill You Cat" meme where he's just waiting for the right time to rip you to shreds and the clock is always ticking. Put Benicio del Toro on a list with Liam Neeson, Charles Bronson, and Samuel L. Jackson as cinematic presences and badass MFers you don't ever want to cross, no matter the character. They have another gear that is just pure murder.
LESSON #2: THE LIMITS OF THE RULES OF LAW-- Kate comes from a place where the law is everything. Matters should be executed and settled by the book in order for them to be right and just in the end. This journey for her reveals that the law has its limits and that certain people are necessary to bend and break those laws to get a more successful outcome. This fight is a war that the law can't win. In order to really make a difference, efforts are needed beyond the law and Kate isn't entirely comfortable with that notion.
LESSON #3: HOW FAR YOU ARE WILLING TO BEND YOUR MORALS AND PRINCIPLES-- Extending from Lesson #2, comes the grand ethical argument of "Sicario." Kate has to decide whether she can justify her own ability to bend or break. It some cases that means pulling the trigger or turning a blind eye. She is operating on a special team that lacks the high ground she possesses. Craven finds loopholes to strike deals and allegiances to get things done where the goal isn't solving the problem, it's making enough noise to catch the cartels in their own mistakes and reprisals. Alejandro is even more beyond Craven. Both men have crossed the line to make a difference. The question becomes how far Kate is willing to follow these activities.