“What am I doing here?” is a common refrain heard from Emily Blunt’s character in director Denis Villeneuve’s taut, explosive thriller Sicario, and really that sentiment could sum up the United States’ role in the War on Drugs over the past few decades. Indeed, that’s the central thrust of Sicario—what are we doing? Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan chronicle the U.S.’ s efforts to curb drug cartel violence with a violence of our own, and the result is not only a smart, uncompromising portrait of this very issue, but also one of the most intense and effective thrillers in recent memory.
Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Mercer, a leader of the kidnap and response team who, in the opening scene, raids a house in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona looking for hostages and instead stumbles upon a home literally filled with dead bodies. This discovery puts her in contact with Josh Brolin’s enigmatic government agent Matt and Benicio Del Toro’s “liaison” Alejandro, who enlist Mercer to tag along with them on a series of secretive missions, the purpose of which is intentionally kept from Kate. Despite her frustrated prodding, Matt and Alejandro refuse to provide any clarity on what exactly they’re doing and who, exactly, they work for. Kate is, for all intents and purposes, an audience surrogate as Villeneuve takes us along this dread-filled dive into governmental involvement in the border drug war, but with Blunt’s striking, vulnerable performance, the character is thankfully much more than a simple POV device.
Blunt effortlessly paints Kate as a naïve, curious agent navigating her way through a world filled with wolves, and as a foil to her steadfast poise, Brolin’s laid-back, breezy portrayal of Matt is terrific. And Del Toro may get the most complex arc of the three, turning in the kind of performance that reminds you just how insanely talented he is; this is easily his best work in years.
While Kate’s arc becomes slightly frustrating as she is continually framed as a passive character just “along for the ride,” it’s all in service of Villeneuve’s upsetting portrait of the world we really live in, as well as the actions that are being taken on behalf our government to bring peace and order. The opening sequence telegraphs this exquisitely, as the FBI’s task force descends upon a seemingly quiet suburban neighborhood, entering from the hills in dark military attire—a stark contrast to the white houses and desert landscape—and literally crashing through the wall of the house with their vehicle. Call it “The American Way.”
But while the film’s thematic throughline is certainly thought-provoking, Villeneuve beautifully tackles these larger ideas under the guise of an impeccably crafted thriller. Dread bubbles under every frame of Sicario, even before the first shot is revealed, as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s unnerving, pulsating score begins creeping in over a black screen. Villeneuve essentially holds this tension throughout the entire film, and just when you feel like it’s safe to take a breath and relax, a startling reminder arrives as if to say, “This ain’t that kind of movie.” Indeed, Villeneuve pulls no punches—it’s refreshingly frank, and while it may not be a “feel-good” movie, it’s a film that you’re not likely to shake too quickly after it ends.
Sicario marks Villeneuve’s second collaboration with cinematographer Roger Deakins, and the reteaming unsurprisingly results in some of the year’s best photography. Deakins’ eye is simply unmatched, and he plays with some fascinating new techniques here that ratchet up the tension in unusual ways—he captures a sequence towards the end of the film, first at magic hour and then in total darkness, that is positively haunting.
Every aspect of Sicario is operating at an incredibly high level, but what makes the film so effective—and, ultimately, distressing—is that it’s all in service of Villeneuve’s desire to explore the effects of violence in such unflinching, graphic detail. That he’s able to marry these themes with the kind of masterful intensity that most blockbusters can only dream of makes Sicario one of the best films of the year.
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