Every year, there are films that pundits and prognosticators deem “too rough/brutal/bleak” for the Academy’s taste. Sometimes they’re right, and sometimes they’re wrong (see: 12 Years a Slave). This year’s race poses a couple of potential “too tough for the Academy” contenders, but one—if given the shot—has a chance to do very well. Filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s bleak, taut thriller Sicario is one of the best films of the year (read my full review here), but it presents a stark and candid portrait of the U.S.’s response to violence with more violence, specifically in the case of the War on Drugs. It’s an unflinching and graphic look at U.S. policy, which could be a bit “too much” for the Academy to embrace (though Traffic fared quite well 15 years ago—you never know with these things).
Having said that, it’s foolish to start counting films out before the awards race has even kicked into first gear, so I’ll just say that Sicario is certainly worthy of consideration for Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay for Taylor Sheridan, among others. Villeneuve flirted with awards consideration two years ago with Prisoners, a solid if a bit familiar procedural thriller that merely came away with a Best Cinematography nod for Roger Deakins. Sicario, however, is a much more thoughtful, tighter film and it’s buoyed by three excellent performances from Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, and Benicio Del Toro.
The Best Actress field is looking quite crowded this year (thankfully), but Blunt should be a significant part of the conversation for her measured, vulnerable portrayal of an FBI agent who becomes a valuable asset to the U.S. government’s approach to establishing order in Mexico. And Brolin is a welcome foil as a breezy, enigmatic government agent who convinces Blunt’s character to tag along on a secretive mission, And then there’s Del Toro, who plays a mysterious man working with Brolin’s task force as a “liaison”. Aside from Blunt. he gets the most complex arc of the film, and as I said in my full review, it’s a performance that reminds you just how fantastic of an actor Del Toro is. The guy won his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Traffic, another film about the drug trade, and he seems primed to be a major factor in that race again this year.
And lets not forget Deakins, who reteams with Villeneuve a second time for unsurprisingly superb work against the backdrop of the U.S./Mexico border. Deakins gets a bit experimental in parts of the film, toying with thermal imaging and night vision photography to thrilling results. And there’s a sequence that goes from dusk to magic hour to complete darkness that is positively stunning. A 13th Best Cinematography nomination is likely in the cards.
Also noteworthy are the film’s explosive soundscape and composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s pounding, haunting original score. All aspects of this film serve its purpose as a nail-biting thriller, and these two aural departments are positively key to its effectiveness. If the movie goes over well with Academy members, look for it to be a player here.
At this early stage it’s tough to suss out exactly what the chances of a film like Sicario making a big splash in the Oscar race are, but Supporting Actor (for Del Toro), Cinematography, and Sound seem like its safest bets, with nods for Actress, Director, Picture, and Score potentially in the cards—assuming the Academy doesn’t brush this off as “too challenging”, that is.
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