Sicario is the latest soul crushing, nail biter from director Denis Villeneuve, the grim genius behind Prisoners and Enemy, who has returned to shed some light on America’s futile and utterly depraved war on drugs. Emily Blunt stars as Kate Macer, a hardened FBI agent battling cartel violence along the Mexican border. After a particularly gruesome day at the office, Macer is recruited into an elite inter-agency task force designed to bring the fight to the drug lords on the other side of the fence and extract a little payback…or so it seems.
Sicario‘s plot isn’t all that extraordinary. It’s a fairly standard thriller that, when compared to the labyrinth of mindfuckery that Villeneuve has tackled in previous films, comes off as pretty straight forward. Long story short: drugs are bad. The war on drugs is worse. Everyone involved on both sides have dirt/blood on their hands. It’s a sad and sorted Nietzsche-esque affair:
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
but with machine guns, executions and the occasional human rights violation for kicks. It’s a good script, just not revelatory. That being said, everything else about Sicario is flat out superb.
Villeneuve has officially earned the rank of director/Jedi master with this film, harnessing outstanding performances from his all-star cast, blessing the world with yet another collaboration with cinematographer extraordinaire Roger Deakins, and basically crafting the most intense movie of the year. Villeneuve’s masterful direction elevates Sicario from standard drug thriller into best of the year contender and it’s amazing. Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin might have top billing in Sicario, but Villeneuve and Deakins’ methodical eyes are the real stars. We follow Agent Macer as she jumps head first into the abyss [Juarez, Mexico] and are shown through massive, ominous aerial shots of the desert landscape, just how minuscule and insignificant Macer, and by extension the crusade on drugs, truly is. There’s danger on every street corner, the specter of death smothers every facet of daily life; there is no law, and order is inscribed through fear. Of course, like ol’ Friedrich said, you stare too long into the abyss…that shit follows you home. Kate returns to the states with her nerves and conscious in tatters, only to discover that once you cross the cartels, even FBI agents aren’t safe. Anywhere.
Despite it’s bleak and grizzly narrative, Sicario is gorgeously shot. With Deakins behind the camera, there are traces of beauty in even the most ghastly scenes. Shots of mutilated corpses retain their elegance and violent executions come across as graceful. The film’s haunting visuals match agent Macer’s spiral into despair. Josh Brolin excels as the devil on Emily Blunt’s shoulder, slowly chiseling away at her previously held concepts of justice and morality. Benicio Del Toro actually has the film’s titular role, as the mysterious ‘sicario’ [Spanish for hitman] and delivers one of the best performances of his career. “Nothing will make sense to your American ears…” he tells Agent Macer before entering Juarez. Near the end, after watching Kate struggle to accept the grim reality that consumed him years prior, he says wearily, “…this is a land of wolves now.” When it’s monsters fighting monsters down at the border, nobody wins.