It’s no secret that violence has become a staple of Western cinema. Sometimes it’s gratuitously slapped on to spike box office digits, other times coated with the flavour and finesse that nets a coveted Oscar nod. Denis Villeneuve is no stranger to the pervasive bloodshed, having directed films such as “Polytechnique”, a chillingly accurate reconstruction of the Montreal university massacre, and “Incendies”, a grim narrative documenting a family’s exploits during Lebanon’s prolonged civil war. His latest film, “Sicario”, chronicles the Mexican drug-war and the bloody detritus it leaves in its wake, grabbing you by the throat from the get-go with staggering shots of mutilated corpses trapped between layers of drywall.
Mr. Villeneuve takes us across the vast, scorching Mexican wasteland, where the ferocious brutality of drug kingpins and their minions threatens to seep across the border. The bevy of unnamed U.S. authority agencies overlooking the Rio Grande want to put an end to it. And so they bring in Kate Macy (Emily Blunt), whose expertise as a tactical S.W.A.T. team officer lands her on an operation to Juarez, where she hopes to catch the men responsible for the atrocities she witnesses in a raid in the movie’s introductory scene.
Agent Kate Macy, a rough-and-tumble, James Bond-esque heroine, is delivered with the right amount of conviction and intensity by Emily Blunt. But there are times where her character feels typecast as the tomboy, the lone woman amongst the throng of men who sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. Mr. Villeneuve sometimes pushes Kate too far in that direction, suppressing her sentiments and emotions and throwing her rugged persona into question. One particularly dubious scene between Kate and her fellow agent Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), where Reggie describes Kate’s eyebrows as “caterpillars” and her hygiene as nonexistent, exposes the film’s subtle attempts to defeminise her character.
The story is mostly viewed through the eyes of Kate, but she ultimately acts as a prism through which the audience can greater scrutinize the far more intriguing Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). Benicio Del Toro is riveting as the brooding and misanthropic Alejandro, one of Kate’s superiors who seems to have a perpetually spinning moral compass. Alejandro is a former prosecutor turned U.S. covert ops agent with a grim backstory and a penchant for bloodshed, leaving no stone unturned and no man untouched. His colleague – superior? subordinate? younger brother? – Matt, is played with menace by Josh Brolin, who answers Kate’s fervent questions with condescending irreverence and who seems to think flip-flops are part of the office dress code.
We also get a glimpse into the day-to-day bustle of a Mexican police officer and his wife and child, but the film never lingers too long in their lives, much more comfortable treading in the waters of the traditional action thriller. The subplot gestures down a curious path but the film habitually pivots back to the central characters, as the story loses some of its girth in the thick of the explosive set pieces and stellar production.
Mr. Villeneuve tries hard to overstep the clichés of the usual hard-boiled gun opus, but “Sicario” isn’t completely immune to hackneyed Western cinema shots and scenes. One particular endgame gunfight concludes in typical Hollywood fashion, albeit with a twist from the usual cliché, but predictable nonetheless. There are a couple cringe-worthy lines buried within, but the laconic, tense dialogue and volatile action sequences keep the film moving at a restless pace.
“Sicario” is a slick, intense thriller that relishes the action between the action. It sets up the explosive violence with remarkable, creeping patience. Taylor Sheridan’s scant script, overlaid against wide, brooding sunset shots and pans of the forbidding, barren deserts, allows the spaces between the actors to tell the real story.
The essence of “Sicario” stems not so much from the struggle between forces of good versus evil as it does from the constant questioning of moral and ethical judgments and the consequences they reap. The film paints a portrait of a city scarred by the havoc wreaked upon it and the subsequent emotions that follow; anger, grief, and relentless pain. “Sicario” truly shines when a glimmer of hope peeks through the morbid shadow of nihilism and the gloomiest crevices of human nature.
Edited by Ujjawal Madan
In theatres now.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Taylor Sheridan; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joe Walker; music by Johann Johannsson; production design by Patrice Vermette; costumes by Renée April; produced by Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill and Trent Luckinbill; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 2 hours 1 minute. Rated “R” for graphic violence, threatened and enacted.
WITH: Emily Blunt (Kate Macer), Benicio Del Toro (Alejandro), Josh Brolin (Matt Graver), Victor Garber (Dave Jennings), Jon Bernthal (Ted), Daniel Kaluuya (Reggie Wayne) and Jeffrey Donovan (Agent Steve Forsing).