Review – Sicario

The war on drugs may be a cinematic road well-travelled, but never with as much stomach-churning immediacy as Denis Villeneuve’s visceral and suffocating procedural.

Sicario is what cinema is all about - an intelligent and visually arresting exploration of a waking nightmare that grips tight around the throat and doesn't let go

Sicario is what cinema is all about – an intelligent and visually arresting exploration of a waking nightmare that grips tight around the throat and doesn’t let go

There’s a beautiful darkness to Villeneuve’s work that has set him apart in recent years, from his 2011 breakthrough Incendies to his more recent American pictures Prisoners and Enemy (both 2013).

Whilst the surface is often hypnotic, the director’s raison d’être comes from exploring the ugly duality, mistrust and hidden darkness scratching to break free and in Sicario these themes are front and centre.

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) and their fellow agents tackle the war on drugs in Sicario

Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), Dave Jennings (Victor Garber) and their fellow agents tackle the war on drugs in Sicario

Emily Blunt plays Arizona-based FBI agent Kate Macer, whose impressiveness in the field gets her noticed by Matt Grover (Josh Brolin), a Department of Defense operative of murky jurisdiction who recruits Kate to join a special task force aimed at bringing to justice the drug cartel bosses responsible for a charnel house the FBI stumbled onto.

The search very quickly takes Kate across the border to Juárez in Mexico where she discovers she’s in way over her head and is being led a merry dance by Grover and his even shadier partner Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro); a man whose past is the task force’s future.

The mysterious Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) in Sicario

The mysterious Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) in Sicario

From the first foreboding strains of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s apocalyptic score, it’s clear Sicario isn’t messing around and Taylor Sheridan’s script refuses to spoonfeed the exposition; challenging you to keep up.

Kate is our way into this unfolding nightmare, challenging those around her to tell her what the hell is going on. However, it soon becomes clear that she – and we – are only going to be told information a need-to-know basis, while the jarheads she’s paired with are riding the wave of death and destruction and following orders.

The Wolfman: Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) in Sicario

The Wolfman: Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) in Sicario

Paired with the maestro that is cinematographer Roger Deakins, Villeneuve’s dark vision of a land fit only for wolves is brought stunningly to the screen; whether it be Kate looking out onto a Mexican cityscape tearing itself apart through savage and inhuman violence, or the eerie shot of soldiers slowly disappearing below a darkening sky.

The film occasionally cuts to aerial shots of the tiny shadow of a plane gliding over the Mexican landscape, or of a convoy of cars snaking through the perilous streets of Juárez to underscore just how insignificant an impact the task force are having against the multi-billion dollar industry that is the Mexican drug trade.

Troops disappear into the darkness in Sicario

Troops disappear into the darkness in Sicario

Despite the scale of the war being fought, however, small victories are possible and this is where Grover and Gillick choose to focus their efforts – after all, the tiniest cracks can sometimes bring down the whole dam.

As well as being a procedural drama, Sicario is also an (literally) explosive crime thriller that features some of the most white-knuckle action sequences you’ll see all year. A traffic jam on the Mexican/U.S. border is almost unbearably tense as Kate and the task force try to determine if they are under direct threat, while an ambush on a tunnel partially filmed using night vision and infra-red cameras is a real masterclass (the POV shot of a knife-wielding solider descending into the tunnel is like something out of a horror film).

Tunnel vision: FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) in Sicario

Tunnel vision: FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) in Sicario

In a superlative cast, Blunt and del Toro are stupendous, with Blunt especially dialling it back and letting the physicality of the part do the job. Blunt has come an awful long way as an actor in the past few years and gives Kate a terrified vulnerability, matched only by a stubbornness to see it through despite her better judgement.

Del Toro, meanwhile, is the best he’s been in years; offering little snippets of what’s going on under the monosyllabic exterior (a trembling hand whilst asleep suggests something’s not right), while being a badass when he needs to be.

Sicario is what cinema is all about – an intelligent and visually arresting exploration of a waking nightmare that grips tight around the throat and doesn’t let go.

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34 comments

  1. mlbradford · October 14, 2015

    Stomach-churning, u say?
    So, not an easy film to watch w popcorn & nachos, then? Pity…
    Anyway, this shld cheer u up:
    http://bradscribe.wordpress.com/2015/10/09/the-martian-a-review/
    Cheers!

    • Three Rows Back · October 14, 2015

      Nice one! Yeah, I watched The Martian a little while back and loved it. A very different movie to Sicario!

  2. Stu · October 14, 2015

    Good read mate. You really loved it! I was impressed by the same stuff – the acting, Deakins’ cinematography, the atmosphere and those tense action sequences. The border crossing one was the highlight for me…magnificent scene.

    • Three Rows Back · October 14, 2015

      I certainly did! One of the films of the year (so far) for me mate. If Deakins doesn’t get an Oscar soon I’ll be displeased.

      • Stu · October 15, 2015

        From what I’ve seen of the trailer for The Revenant he’ll have stiff competition from Lubezki. But it’s long overdue and maybe it’ll be lucky number 13 for him.

  3. le0pard13 · October 14, 2015

    Oh, Hell YES!

  4. Pingback: Everybody’s Chattin + Music Break: Moulin Rouge’s YOUR SONG |
  5. Tom · October 14, 2015

    ¡La revista estupenda, mi amigo! . . . . aaand that would be the extent of my Spanish lol.

    I’m getting this feeling that, and it’s no real surprise I suppose given how great Blunt and Del Toro are here, Josh Brolin will be sadly overlooked for his contributions to this picture. I’m in agreement with you though that the former two are definitely the stand-outs but his Matt Graver was just such a great enigma. A ‘friendly’ threat if there ever were one. All of these little bits added up to an experience that’s going to be very difficult to forget. Bring on the Oscars! 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · October 14, 2015

      I only see del Toro picking up a Best Supporting Actor nom; think Blunt will be overlooked. Roger Deakins deserves a gong for his sublime cinematography too. I really liked Brolin; his friendly demeanour hiding a pretty uncompromising character. Loved this film mate as I thought I might after reading all the glowing reviews; yours included!

      • Jordan Dodd · October 26, 2015

        I thought Brolin was great too, this kidding guy who isn’t what he seems, like you said

  6. ruth · October 14, 2015

    I definitely will rent this one Mark, but I’ve been warned that it might be too violent for me to see on the big screen.

    • Three Rows Back · October 14, 2015

      Won’t lie; there are some visceral and gruesome moments (par for the course for a movie of this nature to be honest).

  7. Jay · October 15, 2015

    Looks so good!

  8. Adam (Consumed by Film) · October 15, 2015

    Terrific work Mark, I echo your positive sentiments. Glad you noticed the horror element too — for me, the first third of the film played out surrounded by a simmering horror vibe. This is really good filmmaking.

    • Three Rows Back · October 25, 2015

      Thank you mate. Trying to catch up with things; haven’t had chance to get to the the blog of late. Yeah, the horror, albeit routed in reality, was simmering throughout. A great film.

  9. movieblort · October 15, 2015

    Great review as per usual. Looking forward to this one.

    • Three Rows Back · October 25, 2015

      Why thank you! Hope you’ve managed to get to it inbetween the delay in me getting back to you. Sorry!

  10. Bob Wurtenberg · October 15, 2015

    Great review Mark! I recently saw this one myself and I agree with you 100%. This has been one of my favorites this year so far.

    • Three Rows Back · October 25, 2015

      Thank you Bob! Appreciate the kind words and very pleased you are on the same page here.

  11. polarbears16 · October 16, 2015

    Great review! I love that you included the “troops into the darkness” shot from the movie, as that might’ve been my favorite. Roger Deakins truly is brilliant.

    • Three Rows Back · October 25, 2015

      Thank you! That shot is one of the best of the year for me; Deakins is an absolute master isn’t he?

  12. Mark Walker · October 17, 2015

    Great read, mate. I really need to catch up with this one. Villenueve is delivering good stuff these days.

    • Three Rows Back · October 25, 2015

      Appreciate that mate; thanks. Yeah, try to catch up with it asap if you can. One of the films of the year for me.

  13. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · October 23, 2015

    Pretty good, weren’t it? I wasn’t totally sold on the actually story but the way it was handled was brilliant and those few big set pieces were so incredibly tense. Plus, anything Deakins is involved you just know is going to at least look stunning. Top write up mate.

    • Three Rows Back · October 25, 2015

      Cheers mate. One of the films of the year for me. This is right up my alley and has lingered in the memory; Deakins’ work is second-to-none.

  14. Jordan Dodd · October 26, 2015

    Great review mate. Good to see more love for this film, it is so good. I really need to see Incendies too after reading this

    • Three Rows Back · October 30, 2015

      Thank you Jordan. It’s a great movie in my book; I’m actually looking forward to Villeneuve’s Blade Runner sequel now. Well, sort of…

      • Jordan Dodd · October 31, 2015

        Yeah I did a double take when I read he was doing that. It will be… interesting

  15. contentforyou1254 · October 28, 2015

    Not seen this yet, but I notice it seems to divide reviewers opinions

    • Three Rows Back · October 30, 2015

      Interested to read any opinions against the movie, explaining why they didn’t like it. Personally, I thought it was fantastic!

  16. Dan · November 1, 2015

    Great read. Sounds like film of the year material. Looking forward to seeing this one.

    • Three Rows Back · November 4, 2015

      It’s awesome. Really hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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