The War on Drugs provides the high-stakes setting for Sicario, with the surprise being that it’s taken this long for a thriller to use such a fertile real world milieu. Far from trivializing the increasingly horrific violence that mars much of Mexico and the U.S. along their shared border, the movie has a bone-deep nihilism that can’t help but remind audiences of the similarly bleak (and beautifully shot) No Country For Old Men.
From the opening scenes that start in media res aboard a cop convoy headed to liberate hostages, Sicario thrums along on coiled machismo and suffocating dread, bringing audiences into the brutal world of Mexican cartels and the American police forces that wage war against them. This is a monster movie where the horrible acts are committed by Mexican cartels and the “good guys” too, as the lines between right and wrong become increasingly blurred. Heck, even the scary-good score evokes Jaws and other horror films with its heavy use of strings.
That opening finds Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) taking part in a botched rescue mission that instead leads to a horrific discovery in the surburban drug house they’ve raided. The walls of an Arizona home are lined with bodies, the victims of wanton killings ordered by cartel jefes and carried out by sicarios. Eager to make a difference and effect some real change, Macer links up with a joint task force led by the mysterious Matt (Josh Brolin) and takes aim at bringing the battle to Mexican soil.
The dialogue, much of it clipped and littered with seemingly accurate jargon (I’m not a marine – I can’t confirm), brings to mind David Mamet or Michael Mann. That’s a very good thing. As Macer’s forced to play catchup with Matt’s intentions while trying to suss out the even more stone-faced Alejandro’s (Benicio Del Toro) role in all of this. We’re right alongside her – trying to make sense of the seeming madness of the methods at hand.
There’s cracking action sequences throughout, perhaps the best of which is a tense prisoner handoff in Juarez followed by a slow crawl towards the American border. The stakes are set early when the incoming Americans witness mutilated bodies hung up by the cartels as warnings. With the threat of violence hanging over everything it’s not a surprise when it erupts, but Villenueve still manages to stage everything with a careful precision that eschews the sensational and drives home the realism (think honest character reactions and decisions, and the style of late-period Mann).
It also mostly takes place in daylight (until a finale that heavily evokes Zero Dark Thirty in its aesthetics and No Country for its treatment of its “lead” character), meaning that all the violence and bloodshed is clear and present. There’s nowhere to hide and Sicario doesn’t shy away from the ugly realities of the drug war, making it’s matter-of-factness hammer home the banality of evil all the more effectively. Some exceptions exist – a torture scene is all the more evocative for cutting away and subverting expectations, while the finale leaves much of the pitched violence off screen.
There’s even some clever narrative sleight of hand at play, as the story presents itself as one person’s tale but subtly shifts the perspective to another. It reminded me of the similarly effective final third of Ex Machina, and while it may drive audiences to anger by appearing unfocused I’d argue the opposite is true. It all seems very deliberate, and while perhaps a parallel story of a crooked Mexican police officer to mirror Macer’s own story is a little bit too much, the tone is well-modulated and the tight narrative is always front and centre.
With Sicario director Denis Villeneuve continues on the path he started with Prisoners by moving towards the mainstream on his own terms. It’s a movie that’s being sold as a drug thriller (I’ve also heard it called a “tequila noir”, a wonderful phrase), but is just as much a rumination on powerlessness in the face of overwhelming odds and man’s tendency towards entropy (despite facile attempts at control). The violence is breathtaking and the pacing impeccable, all married to perfectly pitched performances. Sicario’s a well-oiled machine that efficiently dispenses dread, only coming up for breath once the end titles roll.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 121 minutes