Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” a film about the U.S./Mexican border drug war, doesn’t shy away from showing us graphic unsettling violence. Characters are shot, beaten and tortured. Mutilated bodies hang from an overpass in Juarez. A seemingly normal Arizona suburban home houses corpses hidden in the walls like a tomb. However, violence is probably the least surprising aspect of Villeneuve’s picture. Things have gotten so bad that cartel violence has become an everyday occurrence.
Yet the film isn’t focused on the violence but on how said violence is just the outer layer of a complex, utterly messy situation rife with corruption and shady doings on both sides of the border. In fact there is no finite “border,”—the characters in “Sicario” create their own boundaries, their own set of rules. Futility flows through “Sicario” like blood; it makes Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” look like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” “Traffic” (which chronicled the conflict from multiple perspectives: the cops, the criminals, the addicts, the politicians, etc.) has its fair share of dourness and futility but it ends on a note of optimism: this isn’t going to be an easy fight but we’re making progress. In Villeneuve’s picture there isn’t a single ray of hope. Its message: Yeah…everything is really complicated and screwed up and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.
Not exactly uplifting and “Sicario” definitely won’t be for everyone. Yet, for those who like gritty pessimistic crime cinema (like myself) the movie is hugely entertaining and well made. Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan don’t try and tell a sprawling epic about the drug war using multiple perspectives like “Traffic.” Instead they fit all that chaos and messiness into a tightknit, character driven neo noir. Fresh-faced F.B.I. agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited by a task force made up various U.S. and Mexican government operatives like Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) to take down a major cartel boss. The thrill and intrigue of “Sicario” comes from the moral complexity of the characters. The traditional notions of good and evil, just and unjust, don’t apply anymore. Everyone has their own agenda and self-manufactured definitions of right and wrong, definitions they can bend and reshape as they please. This moral ambiguity makes “Sicario” consistently exciting and unpredictable.
At first glance Kate doesn’t appear to serve that much of a purpose. For most of the movie she’s off to the side reacting while Alejandro, Matt and others do the major police work. She’s a smart and fully competent agent but is often patronized and excluded. My initial reaction to her was puzzlement; why insert this seemingly useless character? But I don’t think she’s useless. Her role is that of the naïve, straight-laced outsider who’s forced to witness the chaos and messiness of the drug war and is unable to do anything about it (further adding to the movie’s sense of futility). The character isn’t great and Villeneuve could have given Blunt more to do but Kate provides the film with some stability and moral outrage to balance out the grittiness. She’s also representative of the audience. We try to make sense of this violent, complicated onscreen world and its violent, complicated inhabitants. We often don’t approve of what we see or even fully understand but we’re unable to act. All we can do is sit and let it happen.
The acting is solid across the board; Blunt is understated and sincere, while Brolin is playful and scenery chewing. Amidst all the bleakness “Sicario” has a dark sense of humor. And then there’s Del Toro-- quietly menacing and dangerous while also managing to give off a calming non-threatening presence. You’re skeptical of Alejandro but at the same time he’s a valuable asset to have (he’s good with a gun, knowledgeable of the area and the drug war). Alejandro slyly emerges as the most fascinating, morally conflicted character in the movie.
And all of this guided by the graceful, nonmelodramatic directorial hand of Villeneuve. He moves the picture along at a steady unhurried pace, usually stretching sequences out to create maximum tension and paranoia. In this corrupted, lawless environment danger is everywhere. You never know who might be trying to kill you so it’s best to tread lightly. "Sicario"isn't groundbreaking in its style or structure, it's just a really well executed dark crime drama; handsomely shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins, while Johan Johansson's subtle electronic score pulses in the background helping to amp up the tension.